Real and Rhetorical Polarisations in Indonesia: Towards the 2024 Elections


About the Seminar

Between 2013 and 2019, many commentators failed to realise the purely rhetorical character of what seemed to be a serious polarisation in Indonesia between a more secular, democratically liberal, and inclusivist politics and a more religious identity-driven, exclusionist, and more autocratic style of politics. The focus of the attention on this perceived polarisation was the electoral contestation between Joko Widodo, seen to be the more liberal, and Prabowo Subianto, seen to be the more autocratic and exclusivist. When the purely rhetorical nature of this electoral polarisation was revealed after Prabowo joined the Widodo cabinet in 2019, the discussion of this polarisation faded and was overtaken in the commentary by a discussion of the decline of democracy.

But is there no real polarisation in Indonesian politics? In this seminar, I will argue that there is real polarisation. Thus real polarisation manifests in two ways. Firstly, there are the regular waves of social opposition, organised through the wide spectrum of civil society organisations whose outlook is very different from all the established political parties. It is an opposition with no electoral representation. Secondly, the difference between the liberal and progressive outlooks of civil society and the conservative status quo outlooks of the nine political parties also have reflections in ideological differences in society that are only faintly echoed among the parties but can have stronger echoes in society outside the parties. There are very important questions about how these real polarisations will impact on electoral tactics of parties vying in the elections. Will potentially destabilising rhetorical contestations, where parties appeal to religious identity or other conservative ideas, re-emerge? Will any of the new parties trying to appeal to civil society gain any traction?

About the Speaker

Max Lane is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Max Lane has worked as a journalist, researcher in the Australian Parliament, human rights activist, lecturer, and teacher. His latest book in English is Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship (Penguin SEAsia, 2022). His latest book in Indonesian is Saudara Berdiri Di Pihak Yang Mana: Politik Seni Subversif Rendra (Djaman Baroe, 2023). He is the translator of 6 books by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, including This Earth of Mankind and its three sequels, now known as the Buru Quartet, published by Penguin (USA). His other books include Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto (Verso, 2008), Catastrophe in Indonesia (Seagull, 2010) and An Introduction to the Politics of Indonesian Unions (ISEAS, 2018). He has also translated plays and poems by W.S. Rendra, including The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, originally published in 1978 but recently republished in The Methuen Drama Anthology of Modern Asian Plays, Methuen, 2014. Max Lane frequently delivers guest lectures at Gadjah Mada University and other universities in Indonesia.


This is a hybrid event which will be held at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS).

Attending the Event In-person at ISEAS

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Attending the Event Virtually via Webinar

To join the event virtually at the specified date and time using your internet devices, please register here to receive your unique login link for the webinar via the zoom platform.

If you have questions for the speaker, please key in your questions via the Q&A, stating your name and affiliation. The moderator will field them to the speaker during the Q&A session.


Mar 14 2023


2:00 pm - 3:15 pm


ISEAS Seminar Room 2 / Webinar