Seminar on “Real and Rhetorical Polarisations in Indonesia: Towards the 2024 Elections”

In this hybrid seminar, Dr Max Lane shared his perspectives on polarisation within Indonesian politics and discussed its potential effects on the upcoming 2024 elections.


Tuesday, 14 March 2023 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Dr Max Lane (Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS) to speak in a hybrid seminar titled “Real and Rhetorical Polarisations in Indonesia: Towards the 2024 Elections”. Moderated by Ms Julia Lau (Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator, Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS), Dr Lane shared his perspectives on political polarisation within Indonesia, focusing primarily on two aspects, “tradition” (as represented by religion) and “modern/secular” forces, and ideological differences between the elites and civil society. He discussed the potential that these polarisations had in influencing electoral tactics in the upcoming 2024 elections.

Dr Max Lane (right) elaborated on the perceived polarisation during the electoral contestation of President Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto in the 2019 election, arguing that the two candidates were not ideologically different. He also discussed the gradual unanimity in the DPR during President Jokowi’s administration. The session was moderated by Ms Julia Lau. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Max Lane began by highlighting how the contestation between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto in the 2013 and 2019 presidential elections became the basis of “perceived polarisation” within Indonesia. Given the seeming differences in the candidates’ political backgrounds and their approaches toward identity politics and democracy, there was a clear distinction between their supporters during both elections. Dr Lane attributed this to the fact that local elites were regionally divided, giving rise to areas of concentration where voters preferred a particular political party. As Indonesian political parties are often tied to specific presidential candidates, political parties generated narratives that would ensure the people’s support for their endorsed candidate. In Dr Lane’s view, this was evident in the 2013 and 2019 elections, where Widodo and Prabowo each had their own regions of support, further emphasising the perceived polarisation.

Dr Lane, however, argued that this perceived polarisation soon diminished after the elections, especially after the appointment of Prabowo as Coordinating Minister for Defence in the current administration. Dr Lane highlighted how the DPR had almost always taken unanimous positions on major policies, adding that there are neither real opposition parties nor critical voices within the parliament. This was reflected in the various policies and key laws passed, such as the Omnibus Law, where there were no significant amendments or objections made by parliamentarians. This is why the polarisation was merely “rhetorical”.

Against this backdrop, Dr Lane elaborated on possible implications for the upcoming 2024 elections. With Widodo’s second presidential term being a period of political unanimity, Dr Lane questioned if there could be a re-emergence of polarisation amidst the competition between the presidential candidates. He has not observed any prospective presidential candidate setting a clear direction or identity for their electoral campaign.

Dr Lane cautioned that there could be other potential polarisations. He listed three key issues: the contestation between traditional and secular mentalities, elites verse societal opposition and the lingering possibility of a third term for Widodo (that some of his supporters still brandished).

Dr Lane used the hajib controversy dividing some communities (where despite the education ministry’s clarification that female Muslim students were not to be mandated to wear a head covering or traditional dress, individual principals or teachers continued to enforce such rules) as an example of an issue that could be used in 2024 to generate potential polarising forces. However, it was too early to say that the three frontrunners – Prabowo, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo – would resort to using this card.

Dr Lane observed that Indonesian civil society was currently divided in its support towards alternative versus traditional political parties. Given the numerous corruption cases involving some local elites, there was a possibility that disillusioned voters could shift to alternative parties in the 2024 elections. Last, the lingering debate over a potential third term for Widodo was another potential cause of polarisation.

The hybrid seminar drew an in-person audience of 14 participants and 62 online participants from Singapore and abroad. Some key takeaways from the session included the questions over the electability of the presidential candidates, the potential influence of social media on voters’ behaviour, the rise in Chinese investments and its potential to divide Indonesian society, and the effective lack of a political opposition and its effects on Indonesia’s democracy.

Overall, Dr Lane emphasised that there were existing polarising forces within society, despite the current unanimity among Indonesia’s ruling elite. Therefore, he emphasized the close observance of presidential candidates or their parties to assess whether they would start using these polarisations to win votes.

For more information on Dr Lane’s edited volume, “Continuity and Change after Indonesia’s Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment”, click here.