Indonesian democracy stronger, but not yet out of the danger zone

Author: Edward Aspinall, ANU

Last week’s presidential election will be remembered as one of the most significant events in Indonesia’s modern history. The all-but-certain defeat of ex-general Prabowo Subianto, and the election of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi), represents not only the victory of one candidate over another but also the preservation of Indonesia’s post-Suharto democratic system — if only by the skin of its teeth.

While there has been a broad political consensus for a decade and a half in Indonesia on the basic shape of the country’s political system, Prabowo Subianto this year posed a significant challenge to that consensus. Though he stated he was committed to democracy, he also called for a return to the country’s pre-democratic 1945 constitution, a document that places almost unfettered power in the hands of the president.

Prabowo described ‘strong leadership’ as the solution to all Indonesia’s problems, expressed thinly disguised contempt for the rest of the political elite and drew on a rabble-rousing populist style similar to authoritarian leaders from other times and places. His personal background, as one of the key hardline military generals in the dying days of the Suharto regime, and his bad human rights record, also signalled a major risk of authoritarian reversal should he take power.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the presidential contest of 2014 had echoes of another important turning point in recent Indonesian history: the struggle for democracy in 1998 that culminated in the resignation of then president Suharto. Indeed, Jokowi was himself a product of Indonesia’s democratic system, coming to national prominence as a result of direct elections of local leaders in Solo and Jakarta, and having an earthy popular style that is worlds away from the formality of elite players like Prabowo who are associated with the old regime.

Though Jokowi and his party mostly refused to portray the presidential contest as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism — believing this would not resonate strongly among Jokowi’s supporters — many in Indonesia’s lively civil society did so. As a result, a huge and ramshackle network of volunteers (relawan) emerged to support the Jokowi campaign, including many pro-democracy activists who had been central to the campaign to bring down Suharto almost two decades ago.

This is not to say that 2014 was a simple reworking of the history of the 1998 democratic movement.

There were also key differences in the political alignments at play and in the resources available to those fighting to maintain Indonesia’s democratic system.

In the first place, a number of important political currents in Indonesian Islam that were involved in the anti-Suharto movement in 1998 as social organisations, student movements and the like — but which have since formed political parties of their own — this year lined up in support of Prabowo. For example, the National Mandate Party (PAN), a party with a strong base in the large Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah, supported Prabowo; its leader, Hatta Rajasa, was his vice-presidential candidate. PAN’s former leader, Amien Rais, had been a leader of the anti-Suharto movement in 1998 and was criticised by some commentators this year for supporting Prabowo.

On the other hand, the coalition that supported Jokowi also enjoyed some advantages that had been absent from the 1998 movement for democratic change. Among them was the remarkable reach of social media, which helped to organise Jokowi’s support base and to defend him against the character assassination that was such an important component of Prabowo’s campaign. The other was the penetration of more conventional electronic media, especially commercial television, throughout Indonesian society. Though several important television stations campaigned strongly for Prabowo in the lead-up to the poll, over the preceding year or so saturation television coverage had helped immensely to foster public support for Jokowi. This ultimately proved very hard to budge. Jokowi’s popularity was especially strong in rural areas and among poorer voters.

Nevertheless, the result was very close. We don’t yet have the final formal count, but all of Indonesia’s credible survey institutes have produced quick counts pointing to a victory in the vicinity of 52 per cent for Jokowi to 48 per cent for Prabowo. By Indonesian standards, this is a very narrow victory.

Meanwhile, Prabowo’s camp has sponsored fake quick counts that show he is in the lead, and he has claimed victory. Immediate concerns focus on the possibility that his supporters will try to manipulate the formal count.

A longer term worry is that he may never concede defeat and subsequently try to wreck Jokowi’s government — and Indonesian democracy — from the outside. Indonesian democracy is not yet out of danger.

Edward Aspinall is a professor of politics in the Department of Political and Social Change in the Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific. 

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