Uncertainty in Indonesia

“We believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 pro-democracy activist

An article about Indonesia’s Presidential Elections I wrote for this month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine: a magazine of art, politics, and society. The magazine also currently features extensive eye-witness coverage of the conflict in Gaza, as well as on-going coverage and commentary on the situation in Kashmir


Indonesia's Election Commission (KPU). Image sinarharapan.co
Indonesia’s Election Commission (Komisi Pilihan Umum, KPU). Image sinarharapan.co

“We Indonesians believe that no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 Democracy Activist (active in recent campaigning, who decided here to remain unnamed)


Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, voted last Wednesday July 12 for their next President. By the time the exit-polls had been counted, it felt like the nation exhaled momentarily. But that relief has been short-lived.

Although the official results of Indonesia’s presidential election yesterday will not be known until July 22, both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, now have claimed victory based on exit polling and quick counts. As a result, political tensions in Jakarta are rising, and Indonesians are growing increasingly anxious as to what this means for Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today urged the election chief to ensure a transparent vote count following the disputed presidential poll, after both sides raised fears the other may party may tamper with the ballots. And this is not without reason.

Indonesia is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries, and the country’s political elite is part of a very intertwined network of power and privilidge. Even though Indonesia made the transition from dictatorship to direct presidential elections a decade ago after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia is still ranked 114th among 177 on a 2013 Transparency International Survey, with the nation’s judiciary, police and parliament ranked among the least trustworthy institutions.

Although the election was violence-free, a result perceived as questionable by either side still risks major public protests. Speaking ahead of the election, the army chief of staff General Budiman had already said the potential for conflict between supporters of Prabowo and Jokowi was “high,” as the Jakarta Post reported on its website July 7. This is a particular risk given the very vast differences between the two candidates and their respective supporters: Jokowi is the “man of the people” candidate, from humble beginnings and without ties to the political elite, whilst Prabowo is a former military general and the former son-in-law of Suharto alleged to have ordered the abduction of democracy activists before the Suharto’s downfall. 

At a rally for Gaza yesterday Prabowo told journalists “there are reports that some election boxes have been stolen, our witnesses are being intimidated”. In making statements like these, it appears the former military man will not go quietly.

The quick counts give Jokowi a lead of around 8 million votes, which is a margin of about 4 percentage points. And it is this slim margin that has given rise to growing tension.

Fears of tension and potential violence by analysts are not just about the close margin, but more about what the some candidate’s supporters are capable of, in particular, Prabowo. Some analysts have expressed concern that with his history, his ties to military, citizen militia groups, and extensive and powerful networks across the country that he might try to bully the election commission or engage in violent protest.

But despite all the public discussion and debate about the potential for unrest, many Indonesians I have spoken to over the past week, from street merchants to members of Indonesia’s parliament, are quietly optimistic. This is in contrast to the many foreign observers.

For ordinary Indonesians, perhaps that comes with the experience of watching the country go through so much turmoil and change over the past 16 years. As one Indonesian who was active in student protests during the Suharto era told me, “we Indonesians believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate”.

Whilst alert to the all possibilities of what could happen over the next two weeks, it appears many Indonesians hope that the candidates and their supporters will accept and honour the results of the election, and that when the final results are revealed on July 22, the wheels of Indonesian democracy will keep turning.

The World’s Third Largest Democracy, Indonesia, Votes Today

Street art promoting a "clean election free of money politics"
Even the graff artists have been promoting a “clean election free of money politics” in the weeks leading up to the election

It’s 7:30am in Jakarta and I can hear the local mosque over loud-speaker encouraging people to go out and vote today with their hearts. The announcer also “prays that it all goes smoothly and peacefully”. The atmosphere is calm, yet electric and anticipatory.

Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, will vote today for their next President.

This really is an occasion to celebrate, as the world’s most populous Muslim majority country consolidates the tradition of democracy through it’s fourth Presidential election sixteen years after the fall of the Suharto Miltary regime.

This election and the intensive campaigning has proved especially divisive though, and the two main Presidential candidates couldn’t be more different: Prabowo the authoritarian top-down leader yang tegas vs Jokowi, the “Man of the People who gets stuff done”.

75% of the Indonesian police force are on standby across the city of Jakarta just in case things get heated, and the military are also on full alert across the country as questions have been mounting about whether one candidate can win convincingly enough to stave off vote challenges and unrest over potentially ambiguous results (the polls predict a very close result).

Whatever the outcome, everyone here just hopes that competing candidates and their supporters will accept and honor the results of the election and that the election is a peaceful one.

Met nyoblos saudara & teman2. Semoga Pemilu 2014 berjalan dengan lancar dan damai, siapapun pemenangnya 🙂

 

The ‘Military Strongman’ Vs ‘The Man of the People’ – A Tired Narrative

In reading foreign coverage of the presidential election campaign I’ve increasingly seen descriptions of potentially two very different Indonesia’s emerging under two “very different” leaders. Coverage from expat journalists out of Jakarta is inevitably following the same tired narrative of an election between the ‘Military Strongman’ and the ‘Man of the People’, images that have, in fact, been constructed and exploited by strategists and marketeers from each candidate’s election campaign team.

At the moment, polls are showing an increase in the popularity of Prabowo, whose controversial human rights record from his years as a general has not seemed to be a major problem in the election race.

As Asia Sentinel reported, “with very few policy differences between the two campaigns, the more potent factor in Prabowo’s favor seems to be a rising perception that he looks more like a “leader” than Joko”. Or as Dr Dave McRae pointed out on Election Watch:

“At a fundamental level, Indonesians face a choice between a president who promises to govern with them, and one who would govern over them. Neither candidate is concealing this choice – it is fundamental to their respective image and appeal.

Whereas Jokowi is a product of Indonesia’s democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Prabowo is firmly part of the authoritarian-era establishment”.


The Prabowo appeal is causing many Western commentators to wring their hands, and for good reasons. I’ve been following coverage from the Australian National University’s New Mandela website with articles written by very well qualified and respected academics, but all of the articles have also followed the same tired “goodie vs baddie” narrative, with less analysis of the electoral appeal of the leader than I would have liked to have seen.

Whilst I have absolutely no hard data about the reasons behind the emerging poll trends in favour of Prabowo, during this election period I have asked Prabowo many supporters about why they support him, despite his shady past. The reasons they cite are usually the following: A) Whilst they like Jokowi, they feel he is not ready for the role B) Prabowo represents a strong leadership figure C) They don’t like Jokowi’s running mate, former President Megawati D) Indonesia needs a more authoritarian government and E) With the exception of Gus Dur, they are exceedingly dissapointed with Indonesia’s Presidents following the fall of Suharto, and feel that democracy did little to change Indonesia’s situation for the better F) They don’t know “who’s interests” are behind Jokowi.

This discusion of the so-called “interests” behind Jokowi has probably come from some of the smear campaign tactics we have seen emerge of late, claiming Jokowi is a “Secret Christian/Chinese/American lackey”. The conspiracy theories abound, and it will be interesting to eventually see who was behind this election tactic. But back to the point..

Whilst I have not heard one Indonesian say they would like to go back to a military dictatorship, and this is about perception over reality, many Prabowo voters also say that they feel Indonesian democracy has served the interest of the elite more than anyone.

From what I have gathered through everyday conversations, it seems some supporters of the Prabowo camp represent a section of Indonesian society fondly remember the certainty and prosperity of life under a military dictatorship. Whilst other supporters, particularly the younger ones, explain that they look to Prabowo as a leader capable of making hard decisions and leading Indonesia from the top down.

Consequently, the Indonesian people are not choosing between vastly different candidates on a policy basis. There aren’t actually major differences between the two candidates on a policy basis. Indonesians are choosing between two opposing regimes which represent vastly different views on the role of the president and his relationship with the nation. And of late, that appeal is to the leader with a well-constructed-by-the-PR-team “tough man” image.