Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 05/2015

Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi's Rise, Democracy, and Political Contestation in Indonesia

Marcus Mietzners

February 2015

East-West Center


Around the globe, populists have used the decline of established political parties and widespread societal fears of globalization to launch increasingly successful electoral campaigns. Indonesia is no exception. In the 2014 presidential elections, two populists even competed against each other—albeit with vastly different concepts of populism. Prabowo Subianto, the wealthy former son-in-law of ex-autocrat Suharto, offered a classic populist paradigm based on anti-foreign rhetoric, condemnation of the status quo, appeal to the poor, and neo-authoritarian reform plans. By contrast, his opponent, the down-to-earth former carpenter and Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi"), advanced a new form of technocratic populism that was inclusive, nonconfrontational, and primarily focused on improving the quality of public service delivery. This study explores the dynamics of the electoral contest between Prabowo and Jokowi, and analyzes what they tell us about the conditions under which populist campaigns are launched and succeed or fail. It shows that Prabowo's campaign was ultimately defeated because Indonesia's post-Suharto democracy was not in a state of acute, life-threatening crisis. However, the issue also illuminates Jokowi's struggle to establish his populist rule after his inauguration as president, with oligarchic forces and other members of the old elite forcefully trying to intrude into his new government.