Jakarta governor with common touch triumphs in Indonesia elections

February 27, 2018

In a symbolic victory against Indonesia’s military “corruptocrat” old guard, self-made and straight-talking Joko Widodo will now lead Southeast Asia’s largest country. Read our letter from Jakarta by Anand Mathai on elections in the world’s third-largest democracy, and stay tuned for more Coconuts coverage of Indonesia.

LETTER FROM JAKARTA – The official results of Indonesia’s bitterly contested presidential election were finally announced last night, and Jakarta governor Joko Widodo has bested his opponent, ex- general Prabowo Subianto, by a tight but decisive margin of 53.15% to 46.85% to become the next leader of the world’s fourth most populous country.

While the vast majority of Indonesians, including Prabowo’s own campaign manager, had accepted Joko Widodo’s victory, the former military strongman, who has been vehemently contesting his opponent’s presumptive win in the weeks since the election, called a last-minute press conference yesterday to say that he was withdrawing from the election because it was “undemocratic” and “riddled with problems.”

Prabowo’s unprecedented move has analysts scrambling to figure out what the legal mechanisms and implications of his withdrawal could mean. But regardless of his next move, any legal challenge Prabowo could mount at this point would be doomed to failure as he would need to overturn millions of votes to have any chance of changing the election’s ultimate outcome.

In every way that matters to Indonesia’s future Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has won.

If you’ve been following this prolonged struggle, the third and closest direct presidential election since Indonesia ousted graft-happy dictator Suharto back in 1998, then you’ll probably agree that Jokowi’s win is a great thing for the archipelago nation.

Prabowo, who had been one of Suharto’s top generals, garnered support based on his image as a strongman and a nostalgia amongst some Indonesians for the good old days of brutal (but stable) authoritarianism.

Jokowi, on the other hand, is a populist politician who represents a solid break from Indonesia murky political past and hope for a brighter and shinier future for the world’s third largest democracy.

Indonesia Takes the High Road

This clip from The Simpsons has been popping up on my social media feeds quite a lot the past few weeks. Even though it’s from a 2004 episode, the joke that Indonesia is “at a crossroads” has been true for quite a long time. Even after Suharto got the boot and the country got down with democracy, it has experienced a constant struggle between the old-school political elites, who still hold most of the governments strings, and a new generation full of politically active young people (kind of like the pro-democracy activists who Prabowo allegedly kidnapped and tortured in 1998) hoping to see Indonesia realize its true potential.

After enduring the worst of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, a crisis that was exacerbated domestically by the corruptocrats who had been using the country as their own personal piggy bank, many political analysts counted Indonesia out of ever becoming a major world power, expecting its fledgling democracy to descend once again into chaos.

But those commentators didn’t take into account the Indonesian people’s amazing resilience, The country bounced back, accomplishing strong and steady economic growth despite serious deficits in infrastructure and weak government institutions.

That growth has been lopsided, however, with the rich getting richer while 43.3% of Indonesians still get by on less than US$2 a day (according to the latest World Bank data). The country’s political and business dynasties have managed to keep wealth and power concentrated at the top and the country’s growth mainly going into their own coffers.

While a few of my Indonesian friends and colleagues expressed a muted hope for the country’s future, until very recently, I’d say the far more prevalent sentiment was that of shoulder shrugging indifference. Most Indonesians believed that there were simply too many systemic obstacles and entrenched interests for Indonesia to ever see real change. Switching to democracy didn’t seem to be doing much good for the common man and the outrageous corruption scandals that hit the news everyday made it seem like the same old song sung by the same old singers.

But that sentiment has changed thanks to Jokowi. He isn’t just a different singer with a different song. He’s the Indonesian political equivalent of punk rock (though he’s actually more of a heavy metal fan) and he’s just been made president. And while this may be mixing metaphors, he also represents the people’s hope for change, much like Obama did for America, but one perhaps in an even more radical way.

Indonesia’s Obama

I’m definitely not the first person to make the “Jokowi is Indonesia’s Obama” analogy. Their rags-to-riches personal stories, saintly auras and even their physical resemblance to one another make the comparisons extremely apt. In fact, the Jokowi = Obama meme has become so prevalent that contrarian articles have been written just to say that they’re hardly the same.

I think the broadest stroke of their stories are similar enough to help elucidate Jokowi’s meteoric rise to political power. While both are mere mortals, Jokowi and Obama’s transcendent qualities allowed them to become the avatars of their countries’ hope for serious, systemic change.

Obama’s election was a symbolic rejection of the centralization of America’s political power amongst upper-middle class white men. Jokowi’s major political victories, first in becoming governor of Jakarta and now as president, represent a fervent desire for something most Indonesians had previously given up hope for. Namely, the removal of Suharto-era political elites and the incompetent, graft-ridden bureaucracy they had put in place to consolidate their power.

Jokowi can represent that hope because, unlike the vast majority of Indonesian politicians, he rose to power without the aid of wealthy patrons, influential benefactors or military connections. A self-made millionaire due to his success in the furniture business, Jokowi first got into politics when he ran for mayor of his hometown of Solo. He became wildly popular there due to his humble demeanor and bottom-up approach to governing.

One of the defining traits of his leadership style is “blusukan,” or unannounced visits, which he regularly made to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, to hear and act upon their problems personally, as well as to government offices, where he would randomly check in to make sure public servants were actually doing their duty. The daily frequency of these visits to the field made it clear that these were not simply photo ops, but the actions of a leader genuinely interested in listening to what his constituents had to say.

In Indonesia, an approach like this was unheard of and Jokowi soon began to take on a nearly mythical quality among the public. When he was tapped to run for governor of Jakarta, he ended up handily trouncing the incumbent Fauzi Bowo with a campaign fueled by social media support and fan-made music videos.

Jokowi manages to project an image that is both humble and saintly, but there’s no doubt that he’s also a canny and pragmatic politician. And like any politician that rises to such heights, he has had to take on the support of entrenched political powers to reach this stage. In his case, he ran for both governor and president under the auspices of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is chaired by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and a former president herself.

While being placed on PDI-P’s ticket might have given Jokowi the platform for his presidential run, it was his overwhelming populist support that won him the day. In fact, at the start of the election season, he was actually polling at around 30% ahead of Prabowo.

Jokowi’s rival managed to chop that lead down to single digits by marshaling an effective, if highly controversial, campaign that used smear tactics (in another Obama parallel, Jokowi was accused of secretly being a Christian) and spin doctors to put himself within striking distance of the presidency.

Election Day Drama

Right before the July 9 election, polls showed the two candidates at a near statistical dead heat. But on the day of voting, quick count results from numerous credible polling institutions showed Jokowi emerge with a narrow but statistically clear win, leading the man from Solo to declare himself the victor.

However, Prabowo also claimed victory that day based upon a smaller number of quick counts results from empirically biased polling groups, pollsters that have now been thoroughly discredited. Despite the mounting evidence against him, Prabowo continued to defend his claim of victory strongly in the weeks after the election, including during a particularly shrill appearance on BBC News.

Before his dramatic press conference yesterday, Prabowo has insisted that commentators wait for official vote count from the General Election Commission (KPU). Then, over the last weekend, he insisted that the official results be delayed for two weeks while voting irregularities were investigated.

The Digital Age of Democracy in Indonesia

Prabowo crying foul over voting irregularities is somewhat ironic, given how much speculation there was that he was the one would try to steal the election through vote manipulation. It’s the sort of conspiracy theory that could very well have proven to be true in an older Indonesia, but the country’s guardians of democracy now have the tools and technology to stop those sorts of shenanigans from happening. Just like the presidential campaign was hugely influenced by social media, so too was the aftermath of the election.

Websites that crowdsourced the task of double-checking vote tallies, for example, show not only an eagerness amongst the electorate to safeguard democracy, but also a level of governmental transparency that would have been unthinkable under Indonesia’s former regime. Now that people are becoming used to that transparency, crimes like corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance are becoming increasingly difficult for politicians and businessmen to pull off with impunity While Jokowi might be the focal point of change, it’s clear that Indonesia’s old status quo is slowly and steadily being dismantled from the bottom up.

Some have speculated that Prabowo’s petulant attitude could divide the nation and cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of Indonesia’s democracy, I think his bad behavior might, in a strange way, be a good thing. He is such an obviously sore loser that his own coalition have been abandoning him steadily in the lead up to the official results. His vice-presidential candidate, Hatta Rajasa, did not attend Prabowo’s withdrawal press conference yesterday, leading to speculation and reports that the two had a serious disagreement over contesting the election results. Worries that die-hard Prabowo supporters would bring violent protests to the streets yesterday caused the police to be on high alert for the whole day, but in the end the expected chaos never materialized.

While those protests might still happen today or in the days to come, I seriously doubt it. The ex-general has used up almost all of his capital, political and monetary, and I believe most Indonesians, including those who supported him. simply want Prabowo to let it go already.

Everything that’s he’s done so far points to Prabowo continuing his impossible quest to overturn the results, or at least discredit the election. Jokowi, on the other hand, expressed a conciliatory tone in his victory speech last night, thanking Prabowo and asking for both candidates’ supporters to overcome their difference, come together and form a single, united Indonesia.

Excitement and optimism over what Jokowi’s presidency could do for Indonesia is running high. How long that jubilation will last is hard to tell. Like Obama, Jokowi’s tenure at the top post may tarnish his saintly image, especially if he is forced to compromise his ideals and abandon his people-powered approach to politics, something he may have to do if he wants to accomplish any serious change at a national level. Yet, on a symbolic level at least, Indonesia just turned a major page. And its next chapter could be its best yet.

Anand Mathai is a journalist who has been living in Jakarta for the past six years. He was previously a features editor at “The Jakarta Globe” and the managing editor of “Time Out Jakarta.”

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