‘Digital people power’ is just getting started in Indonesia

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 21 November 2009 |

Apart from the intense drama, the recent saga between the Indonesian National Police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) also tells us something about the deeper dynamics unfolding in Indonesian politics.

Perhaps the most obvious is the growing “digitisation” of public pressure. A decade ago, public resentment could only be significantly felt if it had evolved into massive nation-wide rallies on the streets. Today, many can simply air their political discontent online without having to leave home.

For example, one group page supporting the embattled KPK leadership on Facebook had over 1.2 million supporters in a matter of days.

Interestingly, the local press followed suit and used these examples of “digital people power” to step up pressure and demand that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono act firmly.

Subsequent mass rallies in cities across Indonesia then followed – many of which were organised through social networking sites – in support of the embattled KPK leaders and jumpstarted a national movement against corruption. As such, digital people power did not end with postings and rants on the blogosphere.

Scholars believe that the Internet has now become the “convivial medium” for collective action in Indonesia.

Although there is a growing literature highlighting the role of the Internet in scrutinising Indonesia’s democracy and its use for political campaigning, the fact that the Web could shape collective action in a high-profile manner is perhaps the latest addition to Indonesia’s ever-changing political landscape.

The impressive growth in the country’s Internet users plays a role in this regard. According to the Indonesian Association of Internet Service Providers, in 1998 there were only 512,000 net users, but by 2007, this number jumped to over 25 million.

Little wonder then that the Internet, aside from being a “new tool” for collective action, is also becoming a new political battleground where politicians try to compete for vote and influence.

In fact, the Internet’s growing significance in politics had already begun during the 1999 and 2004 general elections.

But when United States President Barack Obama’s “digital campaign” became a success story, the general elections earlier this year saw an emerging “digital battle” among competing parties and candidates.

Candidates arranged special meet-and-greet sessions with bloggers while others interacted with their constituents on Facebook.

These trends suggest that the elites realise the biggest block of untapped votes – the 36-million first-time voters who are in the 17-25 age group) – are not only largely wired, but also seem to be less politically-informed. One local study shows that over 86 per cent of such voters were eager to vote, but only 1.5 per cent were politically well-informed.

The KPK saga also touches on the larger issue of Indonesia’s democratic consolidation.

The fact that there has been massive resistance against what the public feels is an unwarranted criminalisation of the KPK – while the President seems unable or unwilling to act – highlight perhaps a growing wariness among Indonesians over the current “democratic progress”.

This is not to say that Indonesians, as a whole, dismiss the idea of democracy per se, but many are enraged with the government’s inability to deliver on the economic front and have corruption-free good governance.

Finally, the KPK saga also indicated the seemingly short lifespan of Mr Yudhoyono’s political coalition and strength.

Though analysts had predicted that Mr Yudhoyono would finally be able to “govern” due to his unchallenged control of Parliament, the KPK saga and the related support for a legislative inquiry into the government-supported Bank Century bailout by members of his own coalition show that realpolitik is alive and kicking in Jakarta.

These changing dynamics might suggest a realisation among contending parties that as Mr Yudhoyono prepares to depart from the political scene in 2014, all available opportunities to undermine his Democrat Party should be exploited. Either that, or, in the words of a political source, it is due to the President’s “ignorance of his partners throughout the campaign and Cabinet-sharing process”.

Although he was re-elected by a large margin, President Yudhoyono must not take his mandate for granted. He needs to push for a complete overhaul of the police and judicial institutions. Otherwise, the “digital people power” in the past few months may simply be a prelude to a gathering storm.

The writer is a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

The article was originally published by Today.

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