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Identity Politics in Indonesia: Implications on the 2024 Indonesian General Election

By Desiree (Editor)

Current Minister of Defence and candidate for Indonesia's 2024 presidential elections Prabowo Subianto celebrated by his supporters at a political rally. Photo: Bloomberg

Potential Candidates in Indonesia’s 2024 Elections

Indonesia’s 13th general election is scheduled to be held on 14 February 2024. As the Constitution of Indonesia places a two term limit on the Presidency, incumbent President Joko Widodo is unable to seek an extension to his leadership, paving way for a new contender to Indonesia’s administration. [1] With the fight for the Presidency gradually intensifying since the election announcement, several promising candidates have emerged.

Amongst these candidates include Indonesia’s current Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto, who accepted his nomination by the Gerindra Party. Prabowo’s third bid for the Presidency was met with support even before the official announcement was made and he emerged on top of opinion polls as early as in January 2020.

Current Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan follows closely in popularity. The Independent politician had expressed his interest in his party’s nomination to run for the election. Having also served as Minister of Education and Culture under Widodo’s cabinet, his political experience has bolstered his credibility and his support base which have made many speculate a close fight in 2024.

Rising Threat of Identity Politics

Yet the immense popularity of both these political figures is symbolic of the growing embracement of identity politics in Indonesia.

Identity politics, as agreed upon by sociologists, is commonly defined to be the development and alignment of political agendas to those who share similar identifying social characteristics, such as ethnic group, religion, socio-economic class and gender, with oneself. [2] It is rooted in the belief that these communities, referring to the majority Muslim native Indonesian population in this context, were historically subjugated and are owed justice. Often such justice manifests in the form of retaliation against these perceived subjugators, resulting in violent uprising and institutionalised discrimination.

Prabowo is a controversial figure amongst the moderates in Indonesia for his frequent mobilisation of radical nationalistic and religious sentiments. During his previous Presidential campaigns, he reportedly encouraged religious and racial intolerance amongst his supporters and warned them of foreign (mainly Western and Chinese) influence which threatened to erode the country’s national values. His supporters were encouraged to root out those “disloyal” to the nation which has resulted in violent riots emerging sporadically. [3][4]

Despite his claims to advocate for moderate political beliefs in Indonesia, Baswedan has expressed ethnically charged sentiments, exposing his nationalistic and extremist intents. Similar to Prabowo, he was also denounced for exploiting the fears of Muslim hardliners during his bid for the role of Jakarta’s Governor.

Baswedan landed himself in controversy soon after being elected as Governor in 2017 for using the sensitive and legally prohibited term “pribumi” to discuss indigenous rights, calling for the native people to regain control of the country after years of historical oppression. His critics argued that his remark potentially alienated the non-indigenous minority groups in the country like the Chinese and Indians as it implied that non-indigenous people were not fully regarded as Indonesian by policy-makers. [5]

Their divisive political campaigns have won them the support from the country’s vocal extremists over the years. At the same time, they have led to fears that mainstream moderate values such as respect for ethnic and religious inclusivity and secularism would be undermined under his leadership. [6]

Their political perspective has been proven to be problematic in Indonesia as serves to validate radical measures in correcting perceived past prejudices through the use of discriminatory or even violent approaches. This has led to concerns that it would embolden the already vocal nationalist extremists in Indonesia, agitating existing religious and racial tensions and further crippling the already fragile peace between the different socio-political factions in Indonesia.

Origins of Identity Politics in Indonesia

Identity politics has been a staple of Indonesian politics, brought about by Dutch colonists’ policies which oppressed the indigenous population whilst creating a small entrenched elite. [7]

These social divisions remained even after Indonesia gained its independence in 1945 partially due to the fact that they were exploited for the furtherance of some parties’ political agendas and were never allowed to be put to rest. Politicians looking to secure political clout often highlighted the present socio-economic difficulties they faced as a result of historical oppression, reopening old wounds and sustaining such volatility until today.

Indonesian nationalist movements gained traction during the struggle for independence, promoting the principles of unity amongst the indigenous ethnic groups. [8]

Pancasila, Indonesia’s state ideology, which encapsulates the core of Indonesia’s nationalism, promotes democracy, civil rights, secularism and unity. [9]

Yet, the ambiguity of the principles allowed radicals and moderates to propagate divisive interpretations of them. For example, past leaders have understood the first principle which calls for the “Belief in the Almighty God” to include all official religions in Indonesia. Yet hardliners have used this point to propagate that truly nationalistic Indonesians practice the Islamic faith. [10]

Indonesia's social and political landscape provides ample opportunity for political actors seeking to capitalise on extremist sentiments; historic discrimination against certain ethnic and religious groups have created a sense of injustice and exclusion ripe conditions for identity politics and extremist ideology to fester.

As a largely conservative country, concerns have been raised that nationalist and religious values have suffered due to globalisation and westernisation in the country, [11] providing extremist political leaders, including Prabowo and Baswedan, the opportunity to rally the people against the erosion of national values and threat of minorities. [12]

Extremists often promote the perception of a growing elite minority undermining the rights of the pribumi class to incite fear amongst the people, thereby generating more support for their radical beliefs. Ethnic and religious minorities have often been inculpated for the country’s troubles and accused of exploiting the common people for their self-interests. [13]

Detrimental Impact of Identity Politics in the Nation

An estimated 95% of Indonesia’s population are natives. The native Indonesian population, also referred to as the pribumi, consists of many different ethnic groups with the largest groups being the Javanese, Sudanese and Malay. 86.7% of Indonesians identify themselves as Muslims. [14]

The Chinese Indonesians have long been singled out as “the biggest problem” in Indonesia by radical political leaders. [15] They have been routinely accused of perpetuating the country’s economic difficulties, despite making up only 1.2% of Indonesia’s population owing to their extensive involvement in the economy, by politicians utilising identity politics for political support amongst the ‘exploited’ natives, compounding racial division. [16]

Christians in Indonesia have also faced discrimination due to the religion’s association with colonialism despite Indonesia’s official practice of secularism. With Christianity growing in popularity [17], Muslim hardliners, who believe that Indonesia should be an Islamic state, blamed it for diluting the predominantly Islamic culture. [18]

Ethnic and religious intolerance exacerbated by political agitation have repeatedly accumulated into protests and deadly insurrections. The May 1998 riots, the aftermath of economic collapse during the Asian Financial Crisis, highlighted the violence against racial minorities. The Chinese business class were made into political scapegoats for the crash of Indonesia’s currency after they were accused of manipulating the flow of currency for profit. Prompted by politicians exploiting racial and socio-economic differences to rally political support, radical Indonesians sort to kill and assault the ethnic Chinese in the country as revenge. [19][20]

Moderate political leaders have been willing to utilise identity politics and accommodate extremist ideology in order to retain political support or capitalise on the support bases of other more radical counterparts despite their constant rhetoric on the importance of preserving moderate views. This enabled the propagation of radicalism amongst politicians and civilians in Indonesia, escalating ethnic and religious tensions.

Widodo has, throughout his political campaigns, positioned himself and his party as the champion for moderates in Indonesia, pledging to curb extremism and radicalism in the country. [21] Yet his controversial decision to appoint influential religious hardliner Ma’ruf Amin as his Vice President revealed his eagerness to take advantage of Amin’s popularity with the extremists in the nation to retain political power. [22]

Identity politics has become a major issue in contemporary Indonesian politics as a consequence of its politicians willingly utilising such methods to gain political clout and their lack of political will to curb such practices. This has culminated in detrimental repercussions on Indonesia's political and social order, felt most severely by the country’s minorities.

This was mostly clearly exhibited during the blasphemy case brought against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, former Governor of Jakarta. Colloquially known as Ahok, he was falsely accused by ultra-conservative religious hardliners of making derogatory remarks about the Islamic faith, which led to his imprisonment. [23]

This move led to widespread protests by minority groups and moderates who argued that this was motivated by extremists’ long-held prejudices: Ahok was an ethnic Chinese and a Christian. [24] Accusations against Ahok were supported by radical politicians such as Prabowo and Baswedan who took advantage of his dual-minority background to stir religious sentiments amongst their supporters and sought his conviction.

Meanwhile, other moderate politicians, including President Widodo, refused to lend their support to Ahok to avoid alienating the conservative demographic and damaging their own political reputation, further enabling the radicals. [25]

Identity politics has left detrimental impacts on Indonesia’s society, disproportionately affecting minorities. Identity politics has allowed for extremism to root itself in the nation’s society and political system which results in the alienation of and perpetuates prejudices against those who do not fit into the majority identity group.

The normalisation of extremism in the country’s political system makes way for even more attempts to make minorities political scapegoats, aggravating existing vulnerabilities in the thinning social fabric of Indonesia, worsening tensions between different religious and ethnic groups and potentially provoking violent clashes.

Predictions for the 2024 Elections

The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or the PDI-P, the political party currently in power, has not officially announced their candidate of choice.

At present, Governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo, who belongs to the PDI-P, is the most popular choice amongst Indonesian voters. His support base stems from the moderates, an optimistic sign that most Indonesians still desire a moderate leader despite the rapidly growing radical crowd. [26] His supporters believe that he would be an effective bulwark against the surge of extremism in the country should he be successfully voted into the Presidency.

The latest election opinion poll conducted in June 2022 by research institute Charta Politika Indonesia on the electribility of potential candidates concluded with Pranowo on top with 36.5% of the popular vote. Prabowo and Baswedan received 26.7% and 24.9% respectively. Previous polls however, have concluded with varying results. [27]

Despite Pranowo’s promising prospects for the 2024 elections, however, his bid for the Presidency requires his party’s nomination. Internal conflicts have seen him sidelined in favour of Puan Maharani, daughter of PDI-P chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri and granddaughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno. [28]

Yet political surveys have ranked Maharani poorly amongst other more established politicians receiving only 1.8% of the votes, indicating that she is unlikely to be elected as President.

Should Pranowo not receive the nomination, the likelihood of Prabowo or Baswedan securing the Presidency is considerable, leaving Indonesia vulnerable to radicalisation perpetuated by identity politics.

In my opinion, identity politics in Indonesia will most likely intensify, especially closer to the election date itself, as the political factions seek to consolidate their votes. Should that happen, Indonesia’s social and political divide would widen, leaving the likelihood of the outbreak racial and religious tensions highly plausible.

With slightly more than a year of campaigning left to go, it is hard to predict which candidate will triumph in the 2024 Indonesia general elections. What is unmistakable however, is that unless there is greater political will by the people and those in power to cease engagement with identity politics in the nation, Indonesia will continue to fall into this downward spiral of political disunity and intolerance towards minorities.





















[14] See Aris Ananta et. al “Demography of Indonesia's Ethnicity”



[17] See “The World Christian Encyclopaedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World”




[20] See Mely G. Tan “Etnis Tionghoa di Indonesia: Kumpulan Tulisan [Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia: A Collection of Writings]” [In Indonesian and English]
















Desiree is a Year 2 Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies undergraduate. She is excited to come onboard The Convergence as an editor and hopes to use this platform to spark greater political awareness and interests amongst her readers. She is interested in exploring political issues in the Southeast Asian region, particularly nationalism and racial tensions. In her spare time she sleeps, cooks, tries her best (and fails) to learn Bahasa Melayu, spends way too much money online shopping and binge drinks Coca-Colas.


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