Why you should pay attention to the Indonesian election

Sana Jaffrey, Research Fellow, Australian National University
31st January 2024
09:00 - 10:00

The speaker 

Sana Jaffrey is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University's Department of Political and Social Change and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Jaffrey is a scholar of political violence with over 15 years of experience in conducting original quantitative and qualitative research in Indonesia. During her appointment at the World Bank (2008-2013), she led the implementation of the National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS) data project in Indonesia, the largest publicly available violence dataset compiled for any single country. Before joining the ANU, Jaffrey served as the director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta (2021-2022), where she led a team of researchers to publish reports on violent conflict and extremism in Southeast Asia.

The video 

Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion 

1. Indonesia is not exempt from democratic backsliding. Democratic decline is on the rise around the world. But this trend looks differently in different countries: from elected autocrats to more traditional takeovers. Indonesia is no exception to this trend despite having one of the biggest free and open elections in the world. 

Rather than suspending or attacking opposition lawmakers, which is one of the examples of democratic erosion, Jaffrey says that the problem is actually the opposite. “The problem is there is very little opposition in Parliament. So the opposition and the government get along a little too well to the extent that there's very little accountability,” she explained. 

Jaffrey gave the example of the current president, Joko Widodo, who was opposed by four of the nine parties in 2019. Later on, a number of those parties joined his government in support, giving him near-total control of the Parliament. 

2. It is important to cover politics beyond the excitement of the election period. Current president Joko Widodo currently has an all-time high approval rating of 80%, which makes the continuation of his party, in which his son is running for vice-president, all the more likely. So why does it matter? Jaffrey argued that while elections are one part of democracy we should care about, they only happen every five years. What happens in between elections also deserves our attention in terms of democratic backsliding. 

“You need to have institutional accountability,” she said. “You have the courts, you have the Parliament, and you have the president, and these three things are supposed to keep each other in check. That's the sort of second part of democracy that is often less visible to us, and there's less drama in there. But that's the part of democracy in countries like Indonesia that is suffering, and which is less dramatic, but also not less consequential for the way in which the country is heading.” 

3. Not everyone’s interests are represented within the political parties. Jaffrey explained how the political and business elite in Indonesia is one and the same, which excludes many people from having their interests represented in government. 

“A small labour group made of ordinary citizens with no backing, no big money behind them, would find it impossible to enter Parliament,” she said. “They might be able to register and campaign, but there's a threshold to enter the Parliament, which makes it very difficult for ordinary people to form parties and just get into politics.”

She also explained another role money plays in politics, which is vote buying. While this practice is most common in regional and local elections, the concern in presidential elections is the incumbent president using his power over state resources to allocate welfare funds in a way that favours his preferred candidate. 

4. Journalists should avoid making quick conclusions when reporting on elections. Jaffrey warned journalists from reaching conclusions based on impartial information. She gave an example based on the last election, where the losing party contested the election results and some journalists were reporting that the election was in dispute. 

“It wasn't [disputed]. Somebody was disputing it, but this doesn't make the election disputed,” she elaborated. “A lot of people read that but then concluded that the journalist had been too quick to sort of accept the story about challenges.” Jaffrey said the best way to avoid this is to include context, avoid dramatic headlines, and consult experts if needed. 

5. Western media should consider their framing when reporting internationally. Jaffrey pointed out that there seems to be a trend within Western media to exoticize certain democratic problems that are actually quite common worldwide. For example, the New York Times published a piece on the election titled “A President’s Son Is in Indonesia’s Election Picture. Is It Democracy or Dynasty?”

“Nobody wrote that headline when George W. Bush was getting elected,” she said. “There's a certain sort of description of dynastic politics in Indonesia, and I was reading about the Philippines as well, that makes it seem like it's a tribal place where people are sort of backwards.” Jaffrey further highlighted how many European politicians are also connected to other family members who are politicians. Her advice to Western journalists is to avoid cultural stereotypes and look beyond the narrow issues. 

The bottom line 

As Indonesia heads to the polls in one of the biggest elections this year, it is important for journalists to look at the full picture and the context of the country. Rather than exoticizing elections and democratic regressions in other countries, Western journalists in particular should be conscious of their framing and their reporting. 


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