Jokowi: Populism and Democracy in Indonesia

Much of the literature on Indonesia's post-Suharto politics has focused on the mechanisms through which oligarchic elites have managed to monopolise political power. Wealthy and well-connected elites, so the argument goes, have 'hijacked' democratic institutions to not only maintain, but strengthen their grip over Indonesian politics. However, the rise of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") to national prominence over the past two years has challenged these assumptions. To begin with, his political career demonstrates that there are different pathways to political power than money, patronage and elite connections. At the same time, the rise of Jokowi also calls into question another key thesis of the oligarchy theorists: that is, the idea that only an organized reformist movement with broad-based support in society will be able to truly change the way government operates in Indonesia. In my presentation, I will show how Jokowi was able to confront entrenched power networks by developing a distinctively inclusive and non-ideological form of populism, central to which is using the mass media as a means of bypassing the established elite to build popular support.

My paper will also highlight the parallels between Jokowi’s populism and that which emerged in post-authoritarian contexts in Latin America in the 1990s, and in Thailand in the early 2000s. But more importantly, it will also emphasize the differences, particularly in terms of his lack of a divisive political rhetoric and tactics. Conceptually, I argue that the flexible theories of populism, largely developed to analyze its diverse manifestations in Latin America, must be extended so as to include instances of populist political strategies like Jokowi’s. This would allow us to better understand why populism emerges, and how it evolves to suit different social and institutional contexts.

About the Speaker Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate with the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.  

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