Controlling the Narrative, Consolidating Power: COVID-19 and Indonesia’s Deepening Democratic Crisis

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    In mid-2022, Indonesia looked back at two and a half years of managing the COVID-19 pandemic. In retrospect, there were two major, and very different, periods in Indonesia’s approach to COVID-19. The first period, from early 2020 to mid-2021, was marked by the initial denial of the pandemic’s existence in Indonesia (Mietzner, 2020); the reluctance of the government to impose stringent public health measures (Jaffrey, 2020; Aspinall, 2021); and the systematic ignoring of warnings by epidemiologists and economists that the government’s prioritization of the economy was neither protecting the public nor the economy (Sulaiman, 2020). After a massive spike of the Delta variant in mid-2021, which cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and for which the government’s approach was primarily responsible, Indonesia’s leadership changed course. Obviously shocked by the carnage, the government tightened regulations, and it accelerated the acquisition of vaccines (Jaffrey, 2021). As a result of natural protection caused by the mid-2021 wave and the new government measures (including a successful vaccination drive), COVID-19 fatality numbers remained relatively low for the last quarter of 2021 and much of 2022. Despite the significant fluctuations in the government’s handling of COVID-19 and the corre-sponding outcomes, the public expressed consistent satisfaction with its leadership. This was true even at times when the statistics pointed to a devastating record in Indonesia compared to most other Southeast Asian countries. In October 2021, Indonesia had witnessed 514 official deaths per 1 million people, compared to the Philippine’s 346, Vietnam’s 198, Cambodia’s 138, Thailand’s 241, Myanmar’s 325, Singapore’s 17, Brunei’s 97, Laos’ 3 and Timor Leste’s 87.¹⁾ Only Malaysia, at 807, had a higher death rate in Southeast Asia than Indonesia, but it also had a far more reliable death count (in September 2021, international studies on excess deaths put the estimated casualties in Indonesia at 800,000 when the government had reported 135,500).²⁾ Importantly, 6 of the 10 Southeast Asian countries with a lower mortality ratio had a signifi- cantly weaker GDP per capita level than Indonesia, making it difficult to argue that the high death toll in Indonesia was simply the result of its lower development status. The opinion polls held during this first, catastrophic period of Indonesia’s COVID-19 experi- ence did not reflect these facts, however. In July and September 2021 (thus, both during and after the Delta spike which peaked in mid-July), over 60 percent of respondents stated in polls that they were satisfied with the COVID-19 management of President Joko Widodo (or “Jokowi”), and 58 percent approved of his overall job performance (Indikator, 2021). While the latter was a reduction from the 70 percent average he had enjoyed prior to the pandemic, the president’s popular support amidst the country’s staggering death toll is intriguing. To be sure, other presidents and prime ministers associated with problematic COVID-19 records have sur- vived the pandemic politically. For example, Boris Johnson remained in office until September 2022, his poor handling of the early outbreak in the United Kingdom notwithstanding. But few of Jokowi’s contemporaries have been so strongly in control of their polity during the pan- demic, up to a point that Indonesia’s political discourse moved to a discussion about the possi- bility of rewarding Jokowi with a (constitutionally impossible) third term. This article aims to explain, therefore, how Jokowi managed to sustain his popularity in the first period of the COVID-19 crisis, when the objective data pointed to a poor pandemic record. It argues that a large part of the answer to this puzzle lies in the pandemic narrative successfully pushed by the government in an increasingly pro-incumbent media landscape. It also lies, in equal measure, in the disincentives the government has created against both the elite and the public expressing dissent with government policies. Importantly, the trends that allowed Jokowi to control the pandemic narrative and the polity as a whole further consolidated during the out- break. In order to develop these arguments, the article looks, first, at the media landscape prior to the pandemic. Second, it describes Jokowi’s pandemic narrative and, third, how it was suc- cessfully protected. Fourth, the discussion demonstrates why few political elites too challenged the president’s pandemic narrative, Finally, the article provides a brief overview of policy mea- sures that Jokowi advanced during the pandemic to further consolidate his power. Overall, then, the pandemic has been both a reflection of Indonesia’s deepening democratic crisis and an opportunity to further centralize power in the ruling elites.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)63-77
    JournalAsian Studies
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2022


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