Dewi Anwar: Indonesia at a turning point
'Indonesia has to succeed to give hope to other communities... and to prove that the stereotype of Islam and violence is not the only narrative in the Islamic world'

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Rappler’s Maria Ressa sits down with Dewi Fortuna Anwar, senior adviser to Indonesian Vice President Boediono, about the presidential elections and what lies ahead for one of the world’s biggest democracies. 

Dewi says: “Indonesia is not short of good people and good ideas but we have achieved much less than what we could have achieved because there are a lot of conflicting interests at play …  that has made it quite difficult at times to pursue a good policy although everybody knows that it is a good policy.”

Whoever becomes president, she adds, will face enormous challenges. “You have to deal with the economic issue, the equity issue. Then Indonesia also needs to become much more astute and adept in its foreign policy at a time when the Asia-Pacific region seems to be a region of increasing tension.”

Watch the interview here:


Maria Ressa: These elections are extremely important. What’s at stake?

Dewi Anwar: I think that this is a very important turning point for Indonesia because President SBY is the first directly elected president ever, and he has served two terms.

So for Indonesia now, we want to see whether Indonesia could really go forward and leave its democratic transition to become a truly new Indonesia with new leaders at the helm and really with fresh ideas and with emphasis on even stronger civil society. Or we want to return to a situation where many have argued that Indonesia has gone too far in its democratic opening, and maybe we need to rein in some of the more wide elements of democracy… and bring in a stronger state again.

So for Indonesia it seems we are at this turning pointing where whether we are going further in in our democratic opening, or whether we are going to do a stock taking, some sort of a rebalancing towards you might say, you know, a stronger leader.

But as a neutral observer, of course I have my preference. I am firmly of the opinion, I’m a strong believer that … we are going to deepen and consolidate our democracy regardless of who wins. So this is not the case of a truly black and white choice, you know, one forward and one backward. Because whether it is the number 1 ticket, Prabowo; whether it is the number 2 ticket, Jokowi, both are running for elections using the existing democratic mechanisms and they have to abide by that. And they will be held accountable to the people who vote for them through this democratic process.

So regardless of who becomes Indonesia’s leader, it only reaffirms Indonesia’s democratic credentials.

MR: I remember talking to you during the days of Suharto. Then after the fall of Suharto, you joined government. How would you look at the spectrum, nearly more than 16 years of Indonesian democracy. How would you describe it?

DA: Well, you know, towards the end of Suharto’s rule, there was a lot of uncertainty. In fact before the fall of Suharto, there was always the argument that Indonesia is not ready of democracy. Indonesians – we are so diverse. The people are not educated enough, the standard of living is still not high enough to support a truly vibrant democracy.

Therefore, the argument was that Indonesia would still need some kind of a benevolent dictatorship. But my argument at that time – and I have not changed my point of view – is that it’s not the people who are not ready for democracy; it’s the political elite who are not ready for democracy because they would have to give up their privileged position – their control of the political system, their control of the economic benefits that having power allowed them to have. You know this collusion between power and business.

And it turned out that after a very traumatic but thankfully brief upheaval, political upheaval, Indonesia has taken to democracy like duck to waters. Everybody, all of these pundits [have said] the elections in 1999 would be chaotic, bloody. It turned out it was peacefully conducted and we had 48 political parties at the time out of 200 political parties that were established within 6 months of Suharto’s fall from power. 48 contested and in the end, 7 or 10 managed to get votes. But that election was conducted in an orderly, democratic manner. And we never looked back.

MR: You can even argue, the resignation of Suharto turning over…

DA: And considering, you know, the examples that we’ve seen in many other parts of the world, we have to give credit to President Suharto that constitutionally he stepped down and constitutionally his Vice President took over and although it was a very difficult period, endless demonstrations demanding that President Habibie step down. There was no coup d’etat at the time, the military behaved itself very very well, refrained from intervening in politics and supported the civilian president despite the fact that maybe the military was not really that enthusiastic about a Habibie presidency.

The fact of the mater is everybody who mattered at the time restrained themselves. And the political elite, despite their differences, as can be shown by the proliferation of political parties they all committed to Indonesia. So yes, they had very different ideas about what would be the best way forward in terms of the political parties but everybody agreed that we have to have a unitary Republic of Indonesia, that we will continue to uphold pancasila as the foundation of our state; as the state ideology although other ideologies were now free to be used by diff political parties. Bar communism, all other ideologies that were banned during Suharto,can now be used freely by various pol parties.

But everybody agreed that we  have a pluralistic democracy; an Indonesia based on pancasila which is unified, very inclusive in its characteristic. The political elites at the end of the day – all were committed to a better Indonesia. So none was wiling to jeopardize Indonesia which was very fragile at the time.

And it could have gone very wrong, looking at what happened on former Yugoslavia and now looking at what has happened in many countries in the Middle East. It could have gone wrong. Some might have behaved in a more egocentric manner as (6:54). But again, everyone was committed to Indonesia.

MR: In 1998, we had this discussion, but only one man stepped down. I asked you, what about change? You said that it would be elections that will take care of it. This is the 5th election. Since then, how has it changed?

DA: What it has changed is that it has really changed the nature of Indonesia itself. During Suharto’s time, there was always a saying that even under the banyan tree, not even grass could grow because the figure of Suharto was just so dominant and so domineering that nobody could conceive challenging Suharto and challenging the system. It was like the Rock of Gibraltar.

But after the fall of Suharto, you can see that the presidency itself is not such a fearsome institution anymore and being ministers are no longer so wonderful anymore. How people see power itself has changed. The state is still respected but it’s no longer this Olympian institution that is so aloof and untouchable. 

So the people in that sense have been freed in the real sense, they have been freed in seeing themselves as truly the holders of sovereignty, that they are the ones who will decide what is in their own best interest. They are the ones who will choose their leaders and they will hold the leaders accountable.

And those who are elected to this very high position of president and vice president fully realize that the people are their boss; that they cannot simply talk on behalf of the people while disregarding the people’s wishes and I think that’s the most important thing and what has happened since 1998 is that we have this emboldened society.

The civil society in Indonesia is I think one of our greatest assets.
We have a free press, we have vibrant NGO community, we have so many mass organizations. And I think the two most important pride and joy of Indonesia remain these two largest Islamic organizations: Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama that remain critically important as our conscience, also as being this moderating influence. They remain neutral, above politics; the members of Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama can be found spread among different political parties supporting different candidates. These two organizations remain neutral and they continue to hold the respect of the majority of Indonesia which as you know is predominantly Muslim.

This civil society is the one that remains as a major difference between post-1998 Indonesia and pre-1998 Indonesia. And i think this is our greatest asset because this is the one that will keep the government honest regardless of who will win the presidency.

MR: How is Islam? Islam and democracy in 1998 – the eyes of the Muslim world were on Indonesia. How has Islam and democracy merged since then?

DA: I think we need to emphasize over and over again that the predominant religion of the people of Indonesia is Islam. So therefore those people who demonstrated in the streets, all the students who climbed the top Parliament building, all of these CSOs are predominantly Muslim, many of them come from the Islamic organizations. The first president after President Habibie is Wahid who chaired… [became] first chairman of consultative assembly.

So Islam in Indonesia has been the harbinger of various national movements, including democratic movements. So we do not see this dichotomy between Islam and democracy in Indonesia.

The Muslim leaders in Indonesia have been the strongest supporters of democracy and they have continued to do so. The fact that there are various political parties associated with Islam, and the fact hat they have taken an active parts in our democratic processes through political parties, legislative elections, through providing leadership in government as president or vice presidential candidate, I think that has always been there from the very beginning.

And president SBY in his first major foreign policy speech when he was first elected as president, he talked about Indonesia’s characteristic, identity, of Indonesia being a country where democracy, modernity and Islam walk hand in hand and each strengthens the other, each supports each other. So we don’t see democracy, modernity and Islam as being contradictory to each other.

MR: What did you learn in the decade, 15-16 years you were in government that you didn’t know before you joined, while you were an outspoken critic of Suharto?

DA: Maria, I’m a political scientist so I’m an idealistic person. I always believe that the most important thing is we work hard, and we have integrity, we follow our conscience and not just the ambitions of power, and then it will be okay. But at the same time as a political scientist, I’m cynical enough to know that at the end of day it’s all about interest and everybody who goes to politics mostly goes there not because – they’re not simply driven by the desire to serve but also the desire to exercise power for their benefit or their group’s benefit.

When I see how Indonesian politics have been exercised, these real checks and balances between the Executive and Parliament, I was very happy in the beginning to see that the Executive is really constrained because we had a very strong legislative party. But then, the legislative body is so fragmented and is so full of conflicting interests that it’s not really possible to effectively exercise power to serve the people.

You know there’s also a lot of frustration in government. There are a lot of good ideas out there. Indonesia is not short of good people and good ideas, but we have achieved much less than what we could have achieved because there’s a lot of conflicting interests at play …  that has made it quite difficult at times to pursue a good policy although everybody knows that it is a good policy.

MR: What do Indonesians want today when they go out to vote?

DA: Indonesia is – it’s going to be 190 [million] people who are going to vote, and they come from all walks of life and they have different dreams.

Everybody dreams of a a better Indonesia, an Indonesia that is more prosperous, Indonesia where equity is better. An Indonesia that is less corrupt, that is where government will truly be filled with people who have integrity, who will not steal and not misuse power.  The people want to see an Indonesia that is well-respected internationally, Indonesia that is going to be economically competitive.

Everybody has this dream but of course, how to get there they have different strategies; we will see. Everybody wants a better Indonesia. Although there are also groups of people out there and they have not been shy of forcing their views, although I think they are marginal, like the Islamic hardline groups who want to see an Indonesia that will apply more of the Shariah law, and because Indonesia is a democracy, they have been given the freedom to express themselves. And as a democrat, I respect them. I’d rather that they say it openly than go underground and carry this out through violent means.

This is a market place, and I strongly believe that the majority of Indonesians are committed to ensuring that democracy is the only game in town for us, that we will continue to deepen our democracy, to improve the quality of democracy, to ensure the productivity of our democracy, that democracy is not just every 5 years when people go to vote and after that the politicians behave as they usually do. 

We want to ensure that there is greater accountability, that public service is the number one objective of a democratic system.

MR: Why does this election matter to the rest of the world?

DA: Indonesia matters to the rest of the world simply because of Indonesia’s size, Indonesia’s strategic location, and Indonesia’s increasingly more weighty role in the regional and international community.

Indonesia matters a lot to the region because Indonesia is the biggest member of ASEAN, and ASEAN I think is pulling its weight even more particularly in the Asia-Pacific where there is such uncertainty, so much tension going on, conflicts between the great powers, so many differences, so many conflicts that are unresolved. And many are looking to ASEAN to play a constructive role in ensuring a peaceful regional order through spreading its good regional code of conduct for example. And within Asean clearly Indonesia is the biggest member and is expected to play a leadership role that will make this idea of an ASEAN-driven regional architecture a reality.

Without Indonesia, I think ASEAN will not be taken as seriously.

Within the wider community, particularly now within the Islamic world, we have seen so many unfortunate failings of democratic experiments. It is very, very important that Indonesia shows this shining lighthouse that shows that there is a different way of state and society relations of who Islam can be placed within democratic context in which different fate and different way of life can be respected.

So within the Muslim community, I think Indonesia has to succeed to give hope to other communities that have this aspiration to open up as well. And to the wider global community, it is also maybe the one that can prove that the stereotype of Islam and violence is not the only narrative in the Islamic world and also as I said, regardless of what the religion of Indonesians is, Indonesia as a country that is a member of the G20, we are hoping that in the next 20 years, Indonesia will be part of the – its economy will grow within top 10 economies of the world. 

And in the international security system, Indonesia hopes to be in the top 10 troop-contributing countries to the UN peacekeeping force. So how Indonesia manages its own government is important to the rest of the world.

MR: Will there be a difference in how the two candidates will handle that policy. Do you see any major shifts?

DA: My feeling is that there’s not going to be much of a major shift. There’s going to be shift in style and rhetoric, but I don’t see any need for fundamental shift.

For example in ASEAN, we are already entering ASEAN Community 2015, so there’s not much that you change in that. What must be done is to ensure that Indonesia is able to benefit from the Asean economic community that is able to strengthen the Asean political security community and ensuring that the Asean social cultural community is also given sufficient attention.

Both candidates talk about strengthening Indonesian economic competitiveness. So to ensure the success of the AEC, each country needs to see that it’s going to win, it’s not going to be an absolute loser ,and if Indonesians feel that they will simply lose out from the Asean economic community, then there’s going to be a backlash against that, and I think that is not in our interest to do that.

So both governments will ensure that they do their homework. It’s more an internal homework to improve the comp of Indonesia’s manufacturing, its farmers, workers. it is not so much as negotiating within ASEAN as improving our capacity internally.

And maybe the rhetoric, 1 million friends, zero enemies, will no longer be as strong because… Indonesia needs to be more selective in prioritizing its foreign policy objectives. But even under President SBY the one million friends and zero enemies doesn’t mean that Indonesia go there aimlessly.

Indonesia does have specific areas of interest, its interests within ASEAN, interests within the Asia-Pacific region, with key global players, with key regions. It doesn’t invest equal time to each single country; just a member of the United Nations. There are priorities. I think it’s more in the matter of rhetorics rather than anything else.

MR: The challenges that this new president must face. What are immediate? Indonesia is also at a critical turning point outside of it’s own internal politics – the economy, global security. What are the challenges this president must face?

DA: Whoever becomes president is faced with enormous challenges. That will always be true. I think each president at this time in history will be faced with enormous challenges.

The challenges of ensuring that you strengthen the economy, ensuring the economic growth and economic equity at a time when there is this global competition, at a time of conflict that affects world oil prices, supply of energy.

The challenge of adequate food supply at a time when climate change is a major issue. That is not going away. That is regardless of who becomes president, you have to deal with the economic issue, the equity issue.

Then Indonesia also needs to become much more astute and adept in its foreign policy at a time when the Asia-Pacific region seems to be a region of increasing tension.

Many people have been talking about the lessons from World War 1. Many articles have been published on the trigger of World War 1 and many have drawn similarities between Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century and the situation now in the Asia-Pacific region where there are so many big powers all competing with each other. Enormous economic resources, enormous military resources and no strong structure yet in place to ensure that conflict will not happen.

So Indonesia I think is in a very important position. It cannot afford to be inward looking. We cannot afford to say that we have no problems in the South China Sea, therefore, we should not really pay too much attention to it or contribute too much to a solution that needs to be found. Precisely because Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea, i think Indonesia is in a best position to play the role of an honest broker, to ensure that Asean can also play that important role.

MR: In the last few years, Indonesia has played an exceedingly large role in ASEAN and though it doesn’t much attention to it anytime there’s a conflict, the foreign minister will come in and iron out things in Cambodia, issues in Myanmar. Do you expect to see more of this. Will this be more formalized as the ASEAN community becomes –

DA: I’m concerned by some of the rhetorics that Indonesia has outgrown Asean, there should be an Indonesian foreign policy post-Asean. I would say that Indonesia has always been too big for Asean. So of course, Indo will not only invest all its time and energy in Asean only because Asean will not be able to deliver to Indonesia all it needs.

Indonesia needs to engage with the rest of the world, with the G20, with the Islamic countries, with the Non-Aligned Movement, that still has some relevance. And so many other areas where Indonesia needs to be actively engaged.

But Asean remains of core importance to us. This is our neighborhood. And if you do not have a safe neighborhood then you cannot be free to go out and play in the wider international community because Indonesia will always be concerned about whether its borders will be safe from hostile intentions from our neighboring countries.

So the immediate neighborhood should remain of a primary importance to us and within that ASEAN is indispensable. So I would say, I would argue that ASEAN should be given sufficient attention. It doesn’t mean that exclusive attention should be given to ASEAN but ASEAN should continue to be of primary importance to Indonesia, it should be given sufficient capacity by Indonesia as well as Indonesia should be able to nurture it, so that ASEAN will be able to be not simply a regional body that would ensure a good neighbor policy for all of the member-states but also that ASEAN can contribute to the wider regional order to promote peace and stability and prosperity within the wider Asia-Pacific region.

And if the next administration were to pay less than sufficient attention to ASEAN, I will be quite happy to continue to remind them that this is important.

MR: Are you staying in government?

DA: That is up to the next vice president. If I’m not here, then I will return to LIPI, which is of course also a state institution. But I’m confident that the foreign ministry is one of our best ministries. They have the best and the brightest there, and I’ m so happy to see so many able diplomats, the new crop of diplomats that we have are truly to be complimented.

MR: This I can’t shake, the ghosts of the past. In many instances looking at these elections remind me of the 1998 elections. The ghost of Suharto and Megawati seem to still be there.

DA: I think it will probably still be there. It’s unavoidable given the fact that those who were at the midlevel or just becoming senior management whether in the military or the political party are coming to their prime now.

So this is their last shot at competing for power. By 2019, they will be too old.

So I think this is a pivotal period for Indonesia because after this period there will be a real change of generation.

The debate between Prabowo and Jokowi is that Jokowi is the new leader; he’s not part of the old elite. But the old elite are still around, and they’re still young enough or not yet ancient enough not to be able to compete.

So the competition now is between the members of the established elite who had been in power in 1998 and who in fact continue to enjoy power post 1998 and somebody who is totally new like Jokowi.

I expect in the future, Indonesia’s leadership will look more like the Jokowi of today because they will come from the regions, they will come from civil society – clearly from the non-military and non-civil service sector.

MR: This is really the election to signal change, regardless, right?

DA: Yes, this is an election that will see change. But even if for example the Prabowo ticket were to win, and they are considered to be representative of part of the old guards, I’m confident that it will not simply be a revival of the Old Order because of the institutions we have in place – civil society is already very strong and the Indonesian parliament, bless their heart, precisely they make government very difficult.

Despite the fact that President SBY is supported by 73% – supposedly on paper, the current government has a support of the majority of political parties in Parliament and some 73% of the seats. It’s not been a walk in the park for the government to push for the legislation because parliament is directly elected also by the people and they are also very conscious of their power. So it’s not going to be easy.

If Prabowo were to win and his ticket has been supported by all of these political parties, there’s no guarantee that is going to be, you are going to have a pushover parliament. It’s going to be frustrating if you’re going to push for legislation to do something you think is necessary to be done but at the same time.

It also means it’s a safeguard for democracy. Because if the Executive were to push for legislation that will wind back some of our democratic privileges for example I think parliament will not easily support that.

MR: On Prabowo versus Jokowi. Prabowo has more experience with Indonesia’s realpolitik even in the way he’s pulled this coalition together. Jokowi is coming into this, lost his lead, partly because he didn’t pull in the political parties. He didn’t pick up the Democratic Party. Is this something that you worry about?

DA: [Jokowi] was very principled in saying that we will not be willing to make coalition if it’s going to be simply transactional. I’m not willing to divide the Cabinet seats up front, while the Prabowo was probably more willing to make that backroom deal. That is the reality of politics. But even in the end, Jokowi will probably have to give concession to his political supporters and pay attention to the various groups’ interests and share power in that way. That is the reality of politics, after all.

Politics is about the art of getting power and the art of maintaining power and the art of exercising power. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why academics don’t usually do too well in politics. But Prabowo will also find that managing a team of diverse parties is not going to be easy.

SBY after all won with a large popular vote, with a huge mandate but this current government has not found it easy to manage the Cabinet or working with Parliament. And that is going to be the reality of Indonesian politics for the time to come. Unless we change our legislative electoral system, maybe go for a simple district style election that would reduce the number of political parties, maybe just have 3-5 parties in parliament, that would make it less complicated in having this divisions or groups that nominate a presidential candidate.

MR: So with the frustration with President Yudhoyono, it’s also a frustration with the system. This is defining – in many ways, that’s how Prabowo rose, gained his momentum against Jokowi. Is that correct?

DA: But he will find that the Indonesian presidency is powerful under the Constitution. But at the same time, there is this reality of a very fragmented parliament so we have ways to go to improve our electoral system. But it is not for the executive to do that; this is for the nation to agree on that. So you cannot do it by Executive Order. But of course, I see that both Prabowo and Jokowi are equally decisive. Jokowi as a mayor, as a governor is also very very decisive.

MR: Given that Indonesia has narrowed it down to its Putin and its Obama, as you mentioned, what does it say about Indonesia today?

DA: It shows an Indonesia that is, in fact, very, very complex. Indonesia does need a decisive leader because we are very fractious. But we also need a leader who can communicate well, a leader who is down to earth and who is one of the people.

We cannot really have someone who is totally trying to be autocratic because it won’t go down well anymore with an Indonesian society that has already enjoyed freedom and I think Indonesian civil society is much stronger than Russian civil society because under Indonesian new order, some freedom was allowed.

MR: Very controlled.

DAL Very controlled, but I survived under the New Order. The academic institutions survived under the New Order, and there are ways of getting around the system.

One thing about the Indonesian system is we are not terribly efficient or effective so even our autocratic system is not that efficient either. While under a communist system, there is no room for civil society to develop. And under the New Order [2 islamic groups] continued to be very strong and they continued to provide that ciivl society leadership that no government was able to control and each government leader need to pay sufficient respect to, because these 2 institutions do hold the respect of the larger society.

MR: What role did social media play in the elections?

DA: The social media has played an important role both negatively and positively. All of these negative campaigns were spread through social media. But a lot of good messages have also been distributed through social media. After all, the media is only the instrument. The content, how you make use of these instruments. And one of the upsetting things about this elections is there are so many out there who are willing to use black campaigns to bring down an opponent.

MR: If the margin of win is so small, is there a possibility of violence?

DA: I would like to say no. And I believe that election is not a life-and-death issue. If there is violence, I would believe that it’s not spontaneous. If there is violence, then these are political machinations and I hope that both camps are sensible enough not to go to that road … to make use of the people to create chaos because we, the whole of Indonesia, are going to lose out.

We have seen cases of some violent conflicts in a few direct regional elections but that has happened in areas where civil society is not very strong, for example in highland… where tribal loyalties trump political issues. So when there are different tribal groups competing even within the same party, then you can see violence.

But usually the emotional attachment to a political leader at the presidential level is not that close. You may vote for Prabowo or you may vote for Jokowi but you don’t really know either of them.You are not going to be personally affected directly. I think there is some distance also. So if violence were to take place, I think because someone from the elite circle tries to do, to trigger that violence. I doubt very much if it’s going to be that spontaneous. –

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