Catholics seek bigger impact in Indonesian politics

Applying church values in the service of all society will see changes for the better, Catholic politicians told

A woman votes in Jakarta’s governor election in this Feb. 15, 2017 file photo. This month, voters in 17 provinces and more than 150 districts and municipals go to the polls to elect new leaders and legislators. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/

Many years in politics has taught Stefanus Asat Gusma to take failure on the chin and to look upon it as coming with the territory.

Four years ago Gusma, who hails from Bondowoso in Central Java, failed in his bid to be elected to Indonesia’s national parliament.

However, adopting the philosophy “If you don’t at first succeed…” he hopes things will soon be different with the country going back to the polls for a general election in April next year.

“It won’t be long before the race begins,” Gusma told, adding he was currently waiting for his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) to assign him an electoral district to run in.

For him, involvement in politics is a manifestation of his Catholic faith and the social teachings of the church.

Bottom of Form

His interest in politics began in high school and blossomed during his university years in Jakarta, which saw him serve as president of the Indonesian Catholic Students Association (PMKRI) from 2009 to 2011.

Gusma said moving to Jakarta widened his political horizons, and enabled him to immerse himself further into the political world by engaging with more influential people and political parties.

“After I finished up at the PMKRI, several political parties approached me, but I chose the PDIP, because its political mission was closest to mine,” he said.

Now the ruling party, the PDIP was founded in 1999 by Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The PDIP is known as the party of the wong cilik — marginalized people.

The party currently forms part of the ruling coalition after winning 109 seats in the 560-seat national parliament four years ago.

Aside from Gusma, many other Christian politicians are members of the party, but the majority of its 340,000 members are Muslims.

“But it does not matter what party Catholics or Christians are in, they must fight for the interests of the Indonesian people, and must live a dignified political life at both national and local level,” he said.

About 10 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million population are Christian, of which 16.4 million are Protestant and 7 million Catholic, according to the latest census.

Most are concentrated in East Nusa Tenggara, North Sumatra, Papua, North Sulawesi, West and East Kalimantan, West and Central Java and Jakarta.

Some of these provinces are among 17 that will elect new governors on June 27, and local legislators in 154 districts and municipalities.

Indonesian bishops are encouraging Catholics to participate actively in this month’s elections. Politics has noble values such as service, dedication, sacrifice, justice, honesty, solidarity, freedom, and responsibility, they said.

“If those values are lived and followed, politics will become a noble feature of life,” Archbishop Vincentius Sensi Potokota, chairman of the Commission for the Laity said recently in a statement.

Catholics are called upon to be the salt and light of the world. In the context of an election, this is achieved by being good voters, participating as organizers, and becoming candidates, the bishops said.

For those running as candidates, the bishops said they should avoid sectarian campaigning and must offer better solutions to people’s problems, and be brave in facing threats such as the emergence of radical groups in their areas.

Beyond church walls

Paulus Krissantono, a former Golkar Party parliamentarian during the Suharto era, welcomes the call, believing it will give more people a positive mindset about politics, which is often seen as a minefield of dirty tricks.

That’s because politicians set bad examples through graft, manipulation and thirst for power, he said.

“Catholic politicians must be different from others, particularly in making sacrifices for the common good. They need to witness the truth, uphold justice and care for the welfare of all,” he said.

They must support this with a spirit of service and if necessary make sacrifices in pursuing these values, not merely seek power or pander to sectarian demands, he added.

He said his party once threatened to expel him for standing against the eviction of local people for a Central Java dam project and pressing for the teaching of various religions in schools, but backed down when Suharto supported him.

“Catholic politicians running for office must break free from the church’s comfort zone,” he said.

“Leave your church compound and reach out to non-Catholics, be they laborers, taxi drivers, women’s groups, Muslim clerics,” he said.

He also asked Catholics to learn from Ignatius Joseph Kasimo Hendrowahyono, a cabinet member during the Sukarno era, and the founder of the Indonesian Catholic Party and Catholic University of Atma Jaya.

He was declared a national hero for his service to the country and promoting honesty, professionalism, intellectuality and religious truth.

Father Antonius Suyadi, director of Jakarta Archdiocese’ Commission for Interreligious Dialogue said every Catholic has the responsibility to participate in nation building.

“Catholics are encouraged to participate in politics to ensure that no-individual, group or political party establish a country based on one certain religion,” he said.

Interfaith dialogue

According to Berthy B Rahawarin, newly elected general secretary of Harmoni Indonesia — the Catholic arm of the United Indonesia Party (Perindo) founded by Christian business tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibijo — the greatest challenge for Catholics in a multi-ethnic and religious society is fostering ties with non-Catholics.

“[Many] non-Christians equate Christianity with colonialism,” he said.

“Those [Catholics going] into politics should be aware of this, and don’t be over confident in the way they think, act and communicate,” he told

“If necessary, they should be able to explain how the church is different from colonialism,” he added.

He also said that with President Joko Widodo providing a wider space for democracy and public participation in recent years, there is now “a good opportunity for society as a whole, not just the church, to participate more efficiently, measurably, and make changes for the better.”

Published in UCAN on June 12, 2018


No fury like Indonesia’s blasphemy law

Human rights groups want law repealed as they say it is too open to interpretation and subject to abuse

Protesters hold up a lighted candles to show solidarity in Bandung, West Java province in this May 13, 2017 file photo as they called for the release of Jakarta’s now ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, who was jailed for allegedly insulting the Quran. (Photo by Timur Matahari/AFP)

Human rights groups have appealed to Indonesian authorities to revise or abolish the country’s blasphemy laws, stepping up calls they have made repeatedly over the past decade.

Amnesty International Indonesia made the latest such demand in April after the Supreme Court rejected on March 26 a case review petition by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former Christian governor of Jakarta.

Also known as Ahok, the jailed ex-governor was seeking to get his blasphemy conviction overturned and cut short his two-year prison sentence. He was convicted for commenting on a Quranic verse that he claimed his political rivals had used to discredit him during his 2017 re-election campaign.

Indonesia enacted its first blasphemy law in 1965 but defamation of religion is also regulated in Article 156a of the Criminal Code.

The main concern of human rights and other groups is that the latter is applied on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They decry this a threat to democracy that has resulted in numerous people being incarcerated unjustly. Top of Form

Bottom of Form

The article has often been used to serve political interests while bowing to pressure from majority groups.

In many cases blasphemy accusations are accompanied by mass protests and, sadly, investigations and court rulings are steered by the strongest and loudest supporters.

In October 2009 an examination of the blasphemy law was submitted to the Constitutional Court. Over 30 people testified, including moderate Muslim cleric Hasyim Muzadi of Nahdlatul Ulama, Jesuit Father Franz Magnis Suseno and writer Arswendo Atmowiloto.

Atmowiloto conducted a poll of people’s favorite celebrities that was published in The Monitor, a newspaper he managed over a quarter of a century ago.

According to the results of the poll, he ranked No.10 on the list one slot above the Prophet Muhammad. This sparked a public outcry and the writer found himself jailed for five years.

However, the court turned down his request to review the law. In handing down its ruling it provided no justification for the decision, merely saying that all blasphemy charges are handled according to legal principles.

Amnesty International claims that more than 100 people have been prosecuted and convicted for religious defamation over the last 12 years, including 12 in 2017 alone.

Meanwhile, police are now investigating accusations of blasphemy against Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, the third daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, and against Amien Rais, the former chairman of the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly and the founder of the Islamic-based National Mandate Party.

Sukmawati was accused of insulting Islam through a poem, while Rais was held to account for a political statement he made that dichotomized “Satanic parties and divine parties.”

Despite the ongoing probe, some observers have expressed concern they will escape punishment as they enjoy the backing of powerful lobby groups

Sukmawati has since met with many Muslim clerics to apologize while Rais appears unconcerned because he is supported by a number of influential Islamic organizations.

A modern-day anachronism

The request to revoke the law was based on the argument that it was created during an emergency situation over 50 years ago and is no longer relevant given that Indonesia is a modern democracy.

The law, particularly Article 156a, has been criticized as a form of state encroachment on religious life, which belong to the private sphere.

It also stands accused of protecting the six major religions of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism while neglecting minority religions and traditional beliefs, which are therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to harassment.

Rights activists are concerned by what they claim is a willful neglect of the due process of law when accusations of blasphemy are filed and processed.

Instead, they say, the accused are immediately held as being guilty.

The nation’s blasphemy law is too elastic, making it subject to abuse. In most cases, religious sentiment or bias becomes the dominant factor in determining whether the suspects were really at fault, as opposed to the objective consideration of their actions.

As such, the law effectively shuts out rational argument and tramples on what most would consider sound legal principles. In other words, the application of Article 156a has derailed the law from its legal context.

In many cases, investigations and court decisions focus exclusively on defamation and ignore whether the accused intended to influence people by encouraging them to abandon their religion.

However, any blasphemy charge should always include due consideration of this.

Due to the unclear definition of the law, judges are given too free rein to make subjective decisions that may well be influenced by their own religious beliefs. In other rulings, they have been seen as bowing to public pressure, often manifested in the form of mass protests.

Rights activists say Indonesia’s religious defamation law goes against the spirit if not the letter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government ratified in 2005 with a law to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Powerful silencing tool

The inclusion in the Criminal Code of a law designed to crack down on defamation of religion came in response to political events in January 1965 that threatened to spiral out of control.

Its birth is inseparable from a decree aimed at curbing the desecration of holy places and religious slights or insults issued by former president Sukarno on Jan. 20 of that year. It was later extracted into article 156a.

The decree was promulgated only a few weeks after the Indonesian Communist Party massacred hundreds of Muslim clerics and students in Madiun, East Java while they were engaged in dawn prayers. The Quran and other symbols of Islam were also trampled on.

It was also published to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations that were loath to give traditional religious beliefs room to grow. Such beliefs were seen as tarnishing established religions.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2013 titled, “In the Name of Religion,” conservative Muslim communities requested back in the early 1960s that Sukarno’s government take action to stamp out mysticism, the teachings of which were seen as a threat to and stain on Islam.

Many followers of traditional beliefs at the time were perceived to be violating the law, undermining national unity, and desecrating religion. Pressing Sukarno to issue his presidential decree — the basis of the current blasphemy law — was seen a long-term solution.

During Suharto’s subsequent New Order, a term he used to distinguish his regime from that of Sukarno’s after he rose to power in 1966, it became a powerful political tool, one Suharto used to maintain public order and silence troublemakers.

Tightening the grip

Islamic organizations remain firm in their belief that calls or petitions to abolish the law must be firmly opposed.

Last year they even challenged the United Nations, demanding it not intervene after it appealed to the government to abolish the law.

They argued that if the law was removed it would open the door for people to insult other people’s religions at will without fear of punishment or reprisal, thus threatening the fabric of society as conflicts escalated.

They said the law helps regulate social harmony making it crucial in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation.

Islamists say it guarantees people’s freedom to choose their own religions and practice it freely without fear of being harmed by others.

And their calls rarely fall on deaf ears, it seems, with the government and parliament now gearing up to expand rather than reduce the scope of this contentious law.

Recent media reports claim legislators have widened the compass of articles 156 and 156a in their latest draft of the Criminal Code, which is now being deliberated by the nation’s parliament. If so, more “innocent” people could face time behind bars if the amendments are approved.

Judging by the ease with which defamation of religion cases can bypass the legal framework, fears are mounting that the revised law will serve as a “magic wand” that majority groups can wield at will to heap pressure on minority groups or their political rivals.

Maybe now would be an appropriate time to break the spell.

Published in UCA News on May 4, 2018 Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau.


Stage is set for another clash of the Indonesian Titans

Should Indonesians be concerned about a military figure coming to power?

Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), joins a protest to show his solidarity with Rohingya Muslims in Jakarta on Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo by Katharina Reny Lestari/

After months of rumors over who Gerindra (the Great Indonesia Movement Party) would choose to run on its ticket for next year’s presidential election, party chairman Prabowo Subianto has been named.

This sets up a potential rematch between Subianto of the leading opposition party and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the former Jakarta governor who won their last electoral contest in 2014.

Subianto served as a former commander of military operations in Timor-Leste and reportedly oversaw the deaths of hundreds of Timorese. His father-in-law was Suharto, Indonesia’s second president who held the post for 30 years until 1998.

On April 11, Gerindra party members unanimously voiced their support for Subianto, who was also a former commander of the nation’s military special forces known as Kopassus, during the party’s national convention.

Party members appeared unperturbed by his loss to Widodo nearly four years ago. They seemed equally unfazed by recent opinion polls, which indicate that support for the incumbent president to stay in power for another five years is rising, or the fact that he has secured the support of much of his ruling coalition.

Bottom of Form

Since Subianto’s candidacy was formalized at a closed-doors hearing, without media coverage, the question is: Will there be another head-to-head rematch between Subianto and Widodo (and if so, how intense it will be)?

Meanwhile, expectations are running high that Widodo can continue to steer the country forward until 2024 — based on his achievements — giving Subianto a mountain to climb.

A survey by Poltracking Indonesia in February revealed the five favorites for the May 2019 race, with Widodo No. 1 and Subianto lagging at No. 2.

According to the poll, 55.9 percent of people prefer Widodo compared to just 29.9 percent who favor Subianto.

The three other names are Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, retired general Gatot Nurmantyo, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Susilo is the reigning chairman of the Democratic Party.

A similar poll conducted by Indo Barometer has also placed Widodo on top.

As of now, five parties representing total votes of 52.21 percent have formalized their support for Widodo.

This is higher than the presidential threshold of 20 percent of seats in the House of Representatives or 25 percent of the votes in the previous election.

At the last election, Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), garnered 18.95 percent of votes, followed by Golkar (14.75 percent), Nasional Democratic (6.72 percent), the United Development Party (6.53 percent) and the People’s Conscience Party (5.26 percent).

Newly established parties like the Indonesian Unity Party and the Indonesian Solidarity Party have also publicly declared they would stand behind Widodo.

On the other hand, Subianto’s obvious supporter is his own party, Gerindra. Its opposition partners, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), have not taken an official stance yet but many expect they will end up throwing their support behind him.

In 2014, Gerindra earned 11.81 percent of the vote while PKS and PAN won 6.79 percent and 7.59 percent, respectively. Based on those numbers, a coalition of the three would have made a combined 26.19 percent.

Another two big parties with significant bargaining power who could prove formidable allies for either candidate are the National Awakening Party (PKB) and Democrats. They scored 9.04 percent and 10.19 percent of the vote in the last election, respectively.

There is also a possibility that the Democratic Party led by Yudhoyono will shrug off any talk of joining a coalition, as it has done in previous years.

The PKB is even considering an alliance between Gatot Nurmantyo, who served as commander of the National Armed Forces from 2015-2017, and its chairman Muhaimin Iskandar.

Meanwhile, the Golkar Party, which was part of the opposition last time round, has now closed ranks with the government, making it harder for Subianto to form a substantive coalition.

If he cannot win over more parties to his cause, the presidential race will be even tougher.

In an effort to boost his political standing Subianto has leaned on controversial rhetoric to draw people’s attention.

Recently, he attacked the government for allowing the country’s natural resources to be controlled by foreign companies while ramping up its foreign debt.

He said this would make Indonesia a failed state by 2030 due to mismanagement.

He also condemned the status quo that sees a small elite control most of Indonesia’s resources.

Most are Chinese-Indonesians, which led him to accuse Widodo of bowing to Chinese influence if not communism itself.

This is a sensitive issue as the president has on several occasions been accused of supporting communism, which is avowedly atheist and antagonistic to all religions.

Subianto said he also regrets not carrying out a coup when he had the chance in 1998, months if not weeks before the fall of Soeharto.

He also has gone on record saying he wished he had not endorsed Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, as vice governor when Widodo was running for the position of Jakarta governor in 2012.

Two years later, Widodo became president while Purnama became governor. Subianto’s hatred for Purnama was demonstrated during last year’s gubernatorial election, where Subianto teamed up with Islamist groups, leading to the victory of Anies Baswedan.

According to observers, Subianto’s recent rhetoric certainly aims to test the waters and show people that his party and its candidates running for this year’s June election are nationalists despite claims they support Islamists.

He wants to impress on the public that he is critical of injustice in society, and as such is presenting himself as an agent of change.

Adequate ammunition

Subianto’s military background has turned him into a combatant who seizes every opportunity to win. His decision to run for the presidency was based mainly on his political intuition and self-proclaimed role as a reformist.

Financially, he has all the resources at his disposal that he needs.

Based on a report to the Indonesian Election Commission in 2014, he was worth over $148 million at that time, based on the income and value of his various businesses and properties.

On paper, Subianto may have already fallen way behind Widodo. But one cannot deny the fact that he has loyal supporters who do not like the incumbent, particularly Islamists, who view him as an enemy.

There are no statistics showing exactly how broad Subianto’s support base is, but one thing is for sure: They are ready to stand behind him if he pays serious attention to perceived threats to Islam.

So will the next presidential race be a repeat of 2014?

While it is still too early to give a fair answer, let’s not forget that the parties within his coalition capitalized on sectarian sentiment to help independent Anies Baswedan win the Jakarta governor election last year.

There are fears they will apply a similar strategy in some strategic areas in the June elections, when 160 million people are expected to cast their ballots for new governors, mayors and district heads.

Meanwhile, if there are no leading candidates beside Widodo and Subianto, the next presidential election will be an intense affair as the contender will do everything in his power to avoid losing for a second time.

However, critics say he would practically have to move a mountain to unseat Widodo, especially since many of his supporters have jumped ship of late in response to improvements Widodo has made in education, health care, support for Muslim clerics, and other areas.

Published in UCA News on April 18, 2018. Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau.


Indonesians tire of oligarchy

Despite two decades of reform, more needs to be done to entrench democracy

A poster bearing the portrait of late Indonesian dictator Suharto with a slogan “How are you bro? Still better in my time, no?” is displayed in Karanganyar, in central Java, in this March 2014 file photo island. Twenty years after Suharto’s fall, Indonesia is struggling to break free from oligarchies. (Photo by Anwar Mustafa/AFP)

When Indonesians finally ousted a military-backed authoritarian regime 20 years ago through a bloody coup, it marked the dawn of new era known as Reformasi.

There were promises of a return democratic rule.

The culmination of the struggle came on May 21, 1998, when President Suharto finally resigned after more than 30 years in power.

However, it was also a tragic juncture in the sprawling nation’s history.

Atrocities, not only in the capital, Jakarta, but throughout the country, claimed the lives of 500 people and thousands were forced to flee violent repression. Dozens are still missing.

Vice president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who took over as president, did not have much choice other than to roll out reforms embracing principles of democracy shackled during three decades of Suharto domination.

During Habibie’s 1998-1999 presidency, dozens of laws were drafted. While many were passed during his tenure, others were enacted in succeeding years. Those laws are viewed now as the foundation of a new democracy.

Among top priorities were securing press freedom, decentralization and providing scope for new political parties and labor unions as well as the releasing of political prisoners.

Other central objectives included limiting the holding of the presidency to ten years, achieving social justice, reducing the military’s role in politics, ensuring fair elections and tracking down Suharto’s misbegotten wealth.

The big question now is; after 20 years, what have we achieved?

Many social, political and economic factors have changed for the better, but more work is needed to address various failures and obstacles to genuine democracy.

For instance, a law passed in 1999 opened doors for press freedom that was bridled for decades. However, in many cases journalists are still targeted by people involved in corruption.

Despite fierce objection from military, Habibie wanted to end the bloodily-suppressed secessionist rebellion in Timor-Leste, already under international scrutiny, and he opened an opportunity for independence through a 1999 referendum. This can be judged a success, with Timor-Leste now an independent nation.

Indonesia has developed to be one of mankind’s largest democracies — and one of the world’s top 15 largest economies — due primarily to endeavors of the past two decades.  

The election in June 1999 was dubbed as the second most democratic election in the country’s history — after one in 1955 — with the participation of 48 old and new political parties.

In the hands of few elite

Reform has brought new modes of governance, moving away from centralization to give more authority to local governments. 

During the reform era, three autonomy laws have been passed, with the latest in 2015 under incumbent President Joko Widodo.

The whole idea was to let outlying parts of the country have greater freedom to manage their own affairs and improve living standards.

While decentralization suits a nation with more than 17,000 islands, implementation has had a myriad of shortcomings.

Many local leaders have abused power through personal empire-building to become the equivalent of local kings and queens. The worst of them have sacrificed the common good in order to enrich themselves and extend political oligarchies.

In many cases, permits for mining and exploitation of other natural resources are exchanged for political support. For crooked leaders, elections provide momentum for bargaining with the rich owns of capital who fund them. As a result, local people — even in natural resource-rich regions — do not receive a fair share of benefits.

Ideally, local administrations, through regional autonomy, are supposed govern independently and uplift the lives of constituents.

However, too many prefer to aggrandize themselves, collecting as much money as they can to use as the wherewithal to retain power.

Unlike in previous years, when corruption scandals mostly involved people in the central government, local officials and parliamentarians are now increasingly arrested for graft.

At this stage, Indonesian democracy is facing the gloomy prospect of stagnancy, a state of affairs underscored by an absence of good governance, rampant abuses of office and sectarian conflicts.

Communal strife can be stirred by self-interested, manipulative scoundrels, particularly during elections.

One cannot deny that the noble goal of democratic reform has been hijacked by a handful of people who continue to find ways to perpetuate oligarchies. 

Moment of consolidation

In June, more than 160 million people in 171 provinces, municipalities and districts will elect new leaders. The number is about 85 percent of 196 million voters who will participate in legislative elections for members of parliament and a president next year.

Many fear that intense competition will result in intimidation by groups or individuals seeking to exploit ethnic or religious sentiments.

Alliances are prone to be established on the basis of political pragmatism in order to grab power rather than elevate the social and economic life of ordinary folk.

However, there is some optimism that the Muslim majority — with the leadership of two major Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah — has become more accepting of democratic ideals. The Jakarta governor’s bitter election campaign last year, marred by anti-ethnic-Chinese politicking, should not be repeated in future elections.

Hopefully, opposition by a majority to sectarianism and chaos, and acceptance that elections

should be a reflection of a will to change as well as just choosing new leaders, will improve the democratic process.

Indonesia’s founding fathers and modern proponents of reform, activists and grassroots alike, dream of a society where politics and economic management are conducted in harmony. Fair elections are a prerequisite for this.

It’s time to free ourselves from those inhabiting murky waters who seek to prey on democracy rather than defend it.

Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau. Published on March 25, 2018