Jokowi win a narrow escape for Indonesia

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Prof. Tim Lindsey

Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.


If Joko Widodo’s narrow victory in Indonesia’s third direct presidential election is confirmed, it may be seen as pivotal moment for Indonesian democracy.


Indonesia has been lauded for its transition to democracy, which began amid economic and political turmoil when President Suharto’s repressive New Order regime collapsed in 1998.


Against expectations, Indonesia pushed the military out of politics and rewrote its authoritarian 1945 Constitution as a liberal democratic charter that included guarantees of rights.


This became the foundation for sweeping reforms, including free and direct elections, a two-term limit on the presidency, an empowered legislature, judicial independence, a Constitutional Court, and the sweeping devolution of power to the regions, among many others.


Press censorship was ended, political prisoners were released and unions were freed from government control. A courageous and effective Anti-Corruption Commission was created, along with an independent electoral commission.


But passing laws is one thing; making them work is quite another, and Indonesian democracy is very far from perfect. Most of its new or remade institutions face serious integrity problems and any Indonesian will say embedded corruption remains the nation’s biggest challenge. The recent life imprisonment of the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court for taking bribes in electoral cases suggests they are right.


Most Indonesians feel “Reformasi” (reform) stalled under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and, despite his good standing internationally, he is seen at home as weak and ineffective. The corruption scandals that devastated his Democratic Party left him a lame duck.


Jokowi does not offer radical change. He will keep the democratic system in place, but promises to fix it, pointing to his record as a clean and effective administrator. During his term as mayor of Surakarta (Solo) in central Java, from 2005 to 2012, Jokowi transformed it from a backwater to a model town. He then parlayed this into an outsider victory in 2012 to become governor of the national capital, Jakarta.




Against the odds, Jokowi made progress on some of the major and seemingly intractable problems of the famously dysfunctional “Big Durian”, including public housing, public health and public transport. He is well known for his attention to policy detail, especially on welfare issues and his ease with the poor, qualities reflecting his lowly origins as the son of an itinerant worker. In fact, it was his humble style and reputation for zero tolerance of corruption that won him national prominence.


Jokowi’s only rival in the race for the presidency, Prabowo Subianto, could hardly be more different. A blue-blood from a family that has been part of the elite since before independence, Prabowo is a very wealthy man. Unlike Jokowi, he offers an extreme solution to Indonesia’s woes, promising to reverse all that had been achieved since his former father-in-law, Suharto, resigned a decade and half ago.


Presenting himself as a decisive “strong man”, Prabowo has spoken openly about his preference for the old Constitution. He argues that democracy is expensive and culturally unsuited to Indonesia. He instead for a return to rule by “consultation and consensus”. This was the rhetorical device used for decades to justify Suharto’s oppressive system but it really just means “patrimonialism and cronyism”.


Jokowi does not offer radical change. He will keep the democratic system in place, but promises to fix it...


Prabowo also argues for economic autarky, increased military power and strong responses to perceived threats to Indonesian sovereignty from “foreign powers”, including Australia, which he has described (not entirely inaccurately) as “Indonesia-phobic”.


This posturing has to be taken seriously. Prabowo is a hard head. A former major-general, troops he commanded were allegedly involved in massacres in East Timor and Papua. He was finally cashiered for the abduction and torture of student dissidents before the collapse of Suharto’s regime in 1998. Prabowo admits responsibility for this, although he denies any knowledge of the fate of 13 students who “disappeared”.




Despite this dark history, the Prabowo campaign was able to reinvent its flawed candidate, as a Thaksin-like populist figure. Saturation advertising, canny image management and a vicious “black” smear campaign against Jokowi almost got Prabowo over the line. He will not give up easily now.


The quick counts run by more reputable agencies gave Wednesday’s election to Jokowi by about 5 per cent. Official results from the Electoral Commission will not be available for some weeks, but already Prabowo is disputing Jokowi’s victory.


He is relying on quick counts from dodgy agencies widely regarded as biased in Prabowo’s favour.


We can expect allegations of fraud and a flood of disputed return cases in the Constitutional Court (problematic, given its credibility remains damaged from the recent scandal). There may also be “black ops” of the kind that were Prabowo’s speciality in his army days.


The situation is tense and as one Indonesian said: “It feels as if everyone is waiting to exhale.”


Even if Jokowi’s victory is confirmed, he will still face huge challenges. Indonesians may have narrowly rejected a return to strong-man authoritarianism, but the tight margin shows that almost half of them are very unhappy with the stalled “do nothing” version of democracy Jokowi has inherited.


If Jokowi is to win legitimacy he will have to do a lot better than his predecessor, even though he faces the same basic political dilemma that hamstrung Yudhoyono: a legislature in which his party only controls a minority, where corrupt opponents can easily buy temporary coalitions to obstruct him.


Somehow Jokowi will have to overcome this, revive the reform process, directly attack institutionalised corruption and deliver real benefits to fast-growing middle class and the vast numbers of poor – and do it quickly.


If he cannot, then Prabowo – or someone like him – will soon be back, and Indonesians might have changed their minds about democracy by then.