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The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at vibesjnu@gmail.com.

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Venezuela's Opposition Is a Mess

In the last few weeks, significant cracks have emerged in Venezuela's ruling government coalition. The ouster of the late Hugo Chávez's long-serving economic Svengali has prompted high-ranking members of the government's ideological left wing to denounce both soaring corruption and an apparent lack of leadership on the part of President Nicolás Maduro. When one factors in the current painful economic crisis, it is not surprising that the public also perceives the government as weak.

This would be the opposition's time to pounce, to make serious political headway. Yet instead of seizing the moment, it is mired in deep, swirling divisions within its own ranks. Internal differences are so stark that oppositionists can no longer make the case that they offer a viable alternative to chavismo.

The cracks in the opposition coalition began to show in the aftermath of last December's regional elections. Some commentators portrayed those elections as a referendum on Maduro, but the government won the popular vote, dealing a serious blow to its opponents. One group, led by losing presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, felt that the opposition needed to lick its wounds, regroup, and plan for future battles.

But another faction, led by the now-jailed dissident Leopoldo López and the since-defrocked assemblywoman Maria Corina Machado, promoted "an exit" to the Maduro government: they called for massive street protests and the convening of a Constitutional Assembly. By law and by precedent, the Constitutional Assembly would have the power to remove all public servants - including the justices in the Supreme Tribunal, the elections referees, the military high command, and even Maduro himself.

There are numerous problems with this proposal. One is that it would not assure victory, given that chavismo will surely gerrymander any election or referendum in its favor. More importantly, López seems to have forgotten that he needed to convince his own side first; most of his colleagues in the opposition, including Capriles himself, have come out against the idea.

This has not quieted the debate. Instead, disagreements have intensified, spilling into the few remaining news outlets that cover the opposition. It has also left many in the opposition rank-and-file wondering about their leaders' true motives.

Several weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said that members of the opposition had lobbied the U.S. government to drop the idea of targeted sanctions for chavistas involved in human rights violations. (She later retracted the claim.) Opposition leaders denied everything, but a segment of the base interpreted Jacobson's statement as proof that part of the MUD coalition, the name of the opposition umbrella group, was in cahoots with the government.

In parallel, the government was busy cracking down on protestors and driving a wedge between opposition leaders. The authorities are keeping López in solitary confinement until trial, have stripped Machado of her parliamentary post, have taken away her passport, and have charged her with "incitement to commit acts of violence." But a few days ago, a high-ranking MUD politician stated that López had brought jail on himself, and that therefore the opposition felt no responsibility to do anything to get him out. (The politician in question has also recanted).

The debate between the two factions continues to rage, and instead of talking to each other, they are taking to the media to trash one another. The fighting has bred deep suspicion and disappointment in opposition public opinion.

The most important issue dividing them is strategy -- namely the most effective way to confront a government that has permeated practically all aspects of Venezuela's public sphere. Opposition leaders differ in approach and style, the consequence of a lack of formal rules regarding leadership.

When Capriles handily won the primaries to contest the presidential election against Hugo Chávez, everyone in the opposition rallied around him. More than two years have passed since then, however, and new leaders have emerged. López, who ran Capriles' first presidential campaign, has shown a particularly independent streak, and many in civil society -- particularly the student leaders behind the recent wave of protests -- view Capriles with suspicion. As López sits in his jail cell, Capriles is seen by his followers as not doing enough to get him out.

The situation inside the opposition is not hopeless, but patching things up is going to require much work. It would also help if outside pressure groups -- people in business, or even foreign observers -- could nudge certain leaders to compromise, and punish those who are all too eager to fan the flames.

With both the government and the opposition in such a state of disarray, one has to wonder: can anyone govern Venezuela? The country's economy is currently in chaos, and its politicians are less worried about solving the issues than about scoring cheap political points.

It was frequently said that Hugo Chávez was the unifying factor within his forces, the leader who could do away with uncomfortable conflicts with a single decision. But as the opposition moves dangerously close to imploding, it may turn out that Chávez was also the only thing keeping a disparate opposition coalition together.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

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