Fasting and Indonesian elections

For several weeks now, I’ve been slowly adopting to life in Jakarta in conjuncture with many important events taking place in Indonesia. Two events have personally left me with significant impressions: the first being the hotly contested 2019 presidential elections, in which over 190 million were eligible to cast their votes on 17 April, and second being the holy Ramadan month for the country’s roughly 225 million Muslims.

I will start with the ongoing holy Ramadan month, which has entered its third week and about to end on 4 June. Ramadan is briefly known as a sacred occasion for Muslims to nurture their faith by fasting, giving “zakat” (a 2.5% fixed tax portion of your earnings to be donated to people in greater need), and enjoying festive “iftar” meals with family and friends.

It is the first time for me to be working in a Muslim-majority, yet incredibly diverse country such as Indonesia. Whenever I visit a new country, I always try to observe and interpret the most random and unconscious daily gestures or activities that surround me. While not going too deeply into the details of my regular, curiosity-driven private conversations that I’ve had with my Indonesian colleagues and friends so far, among the facts that I’ve come to realize is how important religion plays in Indonesian daily life. “What is your religion?” is a frequent question that I’ve encountered in both professional and personal settings (I don’t mind it, at all). People take their time to pray during official work hours, whether or not in a “musholla” (Islamic prayer rooms) or in any random corner in the office. Government meetings that have been scheduled at a specific time are delayed for reasons, beside traffic jam, that attendees can complete their prayers. Near my apartment, there are some out-of-sync prayer calls (“adhan”) coming out simultaneously from several nearby mosques on a daily basis. In the past, the last time that I myself prayed (or saw people do that) before meals was in elementary and primary school: back then, Christianity was still a state religion in Norway, so praying before meals and attending church services were very common activities in my school.

Perhaps the degree of religiosity touches upon me more intensively since it’s Ramadan. But despite myself being a non-believer, I have to admit that the Ramadan atmosphere has brought back a lot of memories from my childhood that I miss so dearly: taking part in spiritual activities. In the past, as a kid, I was always excited to attend mass service, either with my school mates or a Vietnamese Catholic family that took care of me for sometime while my own parents were securing our livelihood as newly-settled refugees in a foreign land. Norway and many other societies in the West in general have become a lot more secular since then. Putting aside the discontents of religiosity in a society, what I have witnessed of people here observing their faith and the good that has come from it is something that I have found to be genuinely admirable and inspiring. Therefore, on 21 May, I decided to fast for a day for the first time in my life.

I had my breakfast from 4:00 AM and thereafter abstained from any food or water intake from 4:25 AM to 5:44 PM, in accordance with the Ramadan timetable. I had expected this challenge to be much more stressful to overcome. But upon breaking the fast, my mind and body felt astonishingly tranquil. I felt in no physical rush to break the fast immediately. I was cheered up by my Indonesian colleagues a lot, and they too were surprised by how well I did it as a first-timer. I explained this to a former Pakistani classmate, who’s also observing Ramadan, by my conviction of how spiritually beautiful I found it to be fasting, in contrast to the simplistic thought of “starving for fun”. The former classmate elaborated further about the point of fasting as “teaching oneself about self-restraint, self-reflection, patience and devotion to worship more than wordly affairs”. I feel incredibly delighted to having had the opportunity to experience this, even for only one day.

However, my day of fasting ended somehow more regretfully, with violent clashes happening in the capital Jakarta as I am writing between security forces and protesters over the latest election results. The scale of the ongoing violence has been painfully reminiscent of the 1998 riots against the ethnic Chinese, though this time the protesters have had no explicit targets to attack.

Hence, Indonesia is now facing another litmus test to its own democratic resilience. The country remains rife of religious and ethnic tensions: in the latest election, 97% of non-Muslim voters opted for the sitting President, Joko Widodo, while the opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, received about 51% of Muslim votes. The implications of voting patterns along religious and ethnic lines are further complicated by Indonesia’s current development stage as a lower-middle income country. On the broader question of the causal relationship between democracy and development, there are two indicative papers that I personally recommend: “Democracy, Conflict and Development” by Collier & Rohner (2008), which argues that democracy proves most resilient only under a high income benchmark, and “The Value of Democracy: Evidence from Road-Building in Kenya” by Burgess et. al. (2015), which finds that Kenya’s transition to democracy helped mitigating ethnic favoritism in public resource allocation. The latter paper in particular should be read thoroughly. Both papers contribute to the debate about democracy and development under very different assumptions, methodologies and sample sizes (case studies).

Given the seemingly dominant role of political personalities among Indonesian voters, in contrast to more party-based forms (e.g. party identification among voters) for sustaining a democratic system seen elsewhere, the events unfolding now will certainly not be the last. After all, democracy is a painstaking process that is not always necessarily forward-looking. The real test may come in 2024, when we will know whether or not the country will come up with a credible presidential candidate who is committed to not backslide on Indonesia’s 21 years of sacrifices to build a modern democracy against all odds. I keep asking my Indonesian colleagues here about what has made it possible for Indonesia from not falling back on its relatively successful democratic transition so far. In spite of the presence of extremist elements, I remain overall so impressed by the levels of democratic awareness that I have anecdotally seen among many Indonesians, in comparison to other countries where I have visited and worked outside the West.

Otherwise, in order to make Indonesian’s democracy less reliant on individual personalities to sustain itself, norms have to be more deeply forged in a way that makes its democracy more grounded on shared beliefs in a set of civic values (e.g. commitment and respect of the rule of law, judicial independence and democratic institutions) that are not necessarily tied to any specific religious or ethnic cleavage. Currently, there is in place the “Pancasila“, a set of five inseparable, founding principles of today’s secular Indonesian statehood. But it is under constant attack by anti-democratic, anti-secular forces. Furthermore, will Indonesia become economically prosperous enough to reclaim its more pro-social state identity during its early days of independence?

Public supervision of electoral counting conduct is vital in any democracy, but outbreaks of violence targeting democratic institutions indicate that civic norms have yet to be fully consolidated in the public mind. Future authoritarian leaders using elections as a means to later dismantle democratic institutions are well-documented. As seen in recent years in the West, identity politics have swept many advanced democratic societies and blinded voters of the real culprits behind wage stagnation, lower economic mobility, and loss of bargaining power, communities and dignity (for a shorter version of this book, see “A Better Populism” by the economist Raghuram Rajan).

Similarly, identity politics – as opposed to policy – penetrated electoral preferences and language more than usual among Indonesian voters this year. Although electoral violence in Indonesia remains miraculously less common at both national and local levels compared to many other countries, they are on the rise, and increasingly so in the name of religion. The ongoing electoral violence may be the largest recorded yet at national level. This is a reminder that the task of democratic civic norms-building is now more important than ever. How is civic education in Indonesia currently being done at the primary and secondary levels? For myself, my civic education in Norway began from 5th grade and onwards (however, its emphasis on “liberal democratic” values are not necessarily replicable to the Indonesian context). On a side-note, it also has to be emphasised that politics and economics are inherently linked. What makes a terrorist? Who are they and what characterize them socially? Has fiscal decentralization remained limited? There are many questions to ask, but also many things to do.

Perhaps I should fast for a few more remaining days of Ramadan as a way to silently wish the best for Indonesians and call for restraint in this difficult time. As far as I am concerned, that is the whole point of Ramadan to begin with.


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