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official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com.
Agung Parameswara/Getty Images