Indonesia has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Asia outside China, and experts agree that official figures significantly underestimate the scale of the unfolding tragedy. The Indonesian government’s response to the virus has been slow and confused, as President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has failed to provide clear guidelines on social distancing and lockdowns, among other things. The coronavirus hit Indonesia at a time of deepening political polarization between Jokowi’s pluralist coalition and an Islamist-linked opposition. Against this backdrop, the government’s handling of the pandemic has triggered political conflict at the elite level, while at the societal level partisan divisions appear to be coloring public perceptions of the president’s response to the crisis.
The virus quickly ignited a polarizing feud between the president and opposition figures. In March, Anies Baswedan, governor of Jakarta and a figurehead for opposition groups, directly challenged the central government’s data on coronavirus cases and deaths. He claimed that Jakarta was experiencing a more serious level of contagion than national figures suggested, and he announced plans to lock down the capital to slow the spread of the virus. Hardline Islamist organizations that have long opposed Jokowi quickly rallied around Anies and called for an immediate lockdown in Jakarta.
The government views Anies and his support base of conservative Islamic organizations as a serious political threat. So, in response, pro-government “buzzers” (or social media influencers) were mobilized to spread anti-Anies material and to criticize the proposed lockdown in Jakarta as a dangerous and politically motivated policy—despite overwhelming scientific evidence that lockdowns are effective in the fight against the virus. Jokowi then used emergency powers to overrule local governments’ coronavirus interventions and prevent them from acting independently. In Jakarta, these new bureaucratic complications delayed the city’s containment strategy, rendering it less effective and endangering lives.
The government’s antidemocratic restrictions on free speech amid the crisis also threaten to aggravate polarization. The national police issued new guidelines instructing officers to bring charges against citizens who make negative comments about the president or any public official in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. Government critics have, as a result, been harassed and intimidated, and by early April seventy-six people had been arrested for spreading hate speech and misinformation about the virus. Many of those arrested are not linked directly to Islamist organizations or parties; however, prominent opposition voices have also been targeted and threatened with criminal charges. State suppression is not yet systematic or widespread, but the securitization of the crisis may sharpen partisan divides by intensifying a sense of harassment among the opposition.
At the societal level, surveys suggest a partisan tilt in how Indonesians are judging the government’s handling of the pandemic. An April poll by SMRC found that Indonesians from the more Islamic provinces that voted against Jokowi in the 2019 presidential election are more likely to feel the government’s response has been too slow. In provinces where Jokowi won decisively, such as Bali, East Java, and Central Java, most people believe that the government acted quickly against the virus.
It is too early to tell whether polarized societal perceptions will harden or fade as the virus spreads across the country. Indonesia, like so many countries, is facing an unprecedented health emergency and a devastating economic downturn simultaneously. These twin crises could affect polarization in three different ways. If Jokowi continues to work against local leaders, especially those associated with opposition parties, and if the security apparatus is perceived to be harassing the opposition, then the pandemic will deepen political polarization. But if Jokowi can change tack and present a coherent response to these crises that explicitly tries to bridge political divides, polarization may ease. Alternatively, if Jokowi’s actions fail to prevent major loss of life, economic turmoil, and unrest, he may begin to lose his own support base, and the shared tragedy of this virus may soften the animus between the president’s supporters and his enemies.
Eve Warburton received her PhD from the Department of Political and Social Change at Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.