Written by Maurisa Zinira
Political space has always been an arena of never-ending contestation due to competing political interests. Not surprisingly, in every general election period, political rhetoric amplifies and becomes divisive. Divisions constantly occur and often lead to acts of violence and criminality. The case of the 2019 presidential election is a real example of how political mobilization hardens identity politics. In this period, intolerance in its various forms was accepted as a matter of course and perpetuated through political practices that threatened social solidarity.
The heated political practice due to the high level of intolerance is recorded in the article by Risa J Toha et al. which was discussed at the eighth Reading in Social Science (RISOS) Forum entitled “Normalization of Intolerance in Indonesia: A Case Study of the 2019 Presidential Election”. The forum, which was held on May 25, 2022, featuring the article written by Risa J. Toha, Dimitar Gueorguiev, and Aim Sinpeng entitled “The Normalization of Intolerance: The 2019 Presidential Election in Indonesia” published in Electoral Studies 74 (2021) 102391. In their article, Toha et al discuss how political campaigning is correlated with increasing intolerance. They mentioned that the political leaders’ intolerant rhetoric during the presidential election campaigning affected the intolerant tendencies of their constituents. The forum, which was moderated directly by Zainal Abidin Bagir—the director of ICRS—invited Burhanuddin Muhtadi and Nathanael G Sumaktoyo as discussants.
Normalization of Intolerance in the 2019 Presidential Election
Normalization discussed in Toha et al’s article refers to the idea that the perceived social acceptability of intolerance is believed to drive individual intolerance. In the case of the 2019 presidential election, intolerant social acceptability was in line with the attitude and rhetoric of the candidates who attempted to win the hearts of their constituents. To see to what extent the campaigns of Indonesian presidential candidates have had an impact on this increase, Toha et al. compiled an online survey that started with two research questions, how normalization interacts with partisanship and influences tolerance and how normalization is strictly partisan.
To answer these two questions, Toha et al conducted an online survey of 1213 participants. The research was conducted in early April 2019, one week before the presidential election was held. Because the research design used an online tool, those who were recruited as participants were mostly young people who had access to the internet.
They were asked to select a number of statements divided into three categories: control treatment, norms treatment, and a motto, covering the issue of diversity and attitudes towards different groups. As a result, the study found that voters tend to refuse to choose leaders from among those they do not like, such as non-Muslims, non-Javanese, or Chinese. Of the three, non-Muslims are the group most vulnerable to discrimination than non-Javanese and Chinese. This trend shows that even among young people, the rate of intolerance towards minority groups is still quite high.
This research also explains that the normalization of intolerance is driven by both social and political processes. Socially, people will move in a direction that seems socially acceptable. Those who are often exposed to intolerant messages will tend to enter into an environment that normalizes intolerance. On the other hand, those who are not exposed to messages of intolerance tend to enter a tolerant community. Meanwhile, politically, the content and targeting of intolerance will be consistent with a political pattern around the divisional elections. In other words, voters tend to follow the evolving political logic. Groups associated with intolerant campaigns will tend to express intolerant thoughts and behaviors because they assume that intolerant views are more acceptable. On the other hand, those who support a tolerance campaign will tend to think that intolerance is unacceptable. As a result, they are more motivated to support candidates who are perceived as tolerant.
This was how the narrative developed during the campaign season which was heavily influenced by the views and rhetoric of political leaders during the election period. The rhetoric of the two Indonesian presidential candidates—Prabowo and Jokowi—was considered to be correlated with increasing intolerance in Indonesia. Prabowo’s campaign was often seen as reinforcing intolerance towards non-Muslims because it positioned itself as a defender of Islam, while Jokowi’s campaign model tended to portray itself as a defender of tolerance and inclusiveness, in fact, it left intolerant messages towards ethnic Chinese as the campaign carried out counter-narratives against accusations of siding with China and rumors about an ethnic Chinese father.
Interestingly, Toha et.al mentioned that intolerance in the political sphere did not appear in their participants’ lives. They still took their children to school even though they were taught by teachers of different religions. They also still lived in their homes which were close to the places of worship of other religions and hung out with friends of different faiths. In other words, social acceptance of intolerance only worked in the political area and did not extend to everyday life outside of the contestation.
Presidential Election and Identity Politics
The 2019 presidential election which was full of identity politics is indeed an alarm for social cohesion. According to Burhanuddin Muhtadi, who was present at the forum as a discussant, identity politics works where the composition of religion (Muslim vs non-Muslim) and/or ethnicity is not unequal. Or, in other words, there is a primordial base that makes the region heat up. If an area does not have strong ethnic divisions, identity politics generally does not work. Therefore, he said that efforts to see the rate of intolerance must also be seen from the reality of the community on the ground because the increase of intolerance was not caused only by one factor. It’s not just the rhetoric of political leaders. Because it could be, not a political campaign that affects the constituents but rather the culture of intolerance among the constituents that causes political parties to choose to use less tolerant rhetoric.
In addition, he also noted that online research that was only conducted once before the election was prone to bias. This is because different survey models will lead to different conclusions. According to him, online surveys tend to attract educated participants, so the results seem to show that intolerance is reduced. Meanwhile, the reality on the ground is often more complex than the online surveys suggest. Thus, he recommended that research be conducted in various timescales to see whether the intolerant statements of the candidates really had an impact on increasing intolerance among voters.
Nathanael Sumaktoyo added that the reluctance not to vote for an unwelcome candidate could also be caused by negative partisanship. Negative partisanship presupposes a standard view of seeing the enemy, “the enemy of my enemy are my friends”. This can be seen, for example, in what he called “captured minority” such as the Shia and the Ahmadiyah, who may not vote because they like the candidate but because they are the enemy of the enemies of the minority group.
Sumaktoyo also mentioned the existence of moral licensing during the campaign season. Moral licensing is the legitimacy to do something awful because they feel they have done something decent. This can be seen in groups who think they are already tolerant of other groups, which in the end, moral feelings seem to legitimize their intolerant attitude. This is illustrated in Toha et al’s research that the claim of Jokowi’s constituents as a tolerant group makes them feel they have reasons to blame others.
The political dynamics of the 2019 presidential election are complex and full of intolerance, which is considered normal. As previously stated by Toha et al., this treatment of intolerance as something natural continues to be reinforced by the statements of political leaders. Especially with the existence of social media, those messages were constantly reproduced and shared among society members which further heated up the contestation and debates. If this political model continues, we can now predict the situation that may happen in 2024.