Monday, July 21, 2014

I came to Indonesia not knowing much more than the basics - it’s has the world’s 4th largest population, is an archipelago comprising thousands of Islands, and is home to a majority Muslim populace. I’d also picked up a bit watching silat martial arts films starring Iko Uwais.

Having spent three weeks prior studying and working in Malaysia, I imagined that my experiences would be similar given the two nations shared geography, language and food. Once I got to understand Indonesia on a deeper level, I started to notice what differing historical legacies and paths of political development post-independence had created.

Last week was a semi-pivotal moment in Indonesia. The contest between “Jokowi” Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto was the closest election since Indonesia started choosing its president by direct election in 2004. In the two previous elections Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won with a commanding 60% of the vote. This election’s result went from assured victory for Jokowi to a bitter struggle to the finish. His polling lead shrank from 27% to 7.4% between March and June. 
Us at a Jakarta polling station
The candidates represented themselves as night and day archetypes. Jokowi as the grass roots organising, progressive, moderate, pragmatist, while Prabowo campaigned under the image of iron fist rule that could bring stability back the country. Faced with these potential presidencies, Indonesians could choose the uncertain path forward, or a retreat back into the comforting, albeit restrictive, embrace of Soeharto style authoritarianism.
A Jokowi supporter in discussion some elderly gentlemen.
In the lead up to the election, no one knew exactly what a neck-and-neck election would look like. There were serious concerns that tensions could turn violent, leading risk management consultants iJet to send out a warning that “officials fear that the threat of violent clashes is growing, especially if one of the candidates contests the election results” (helpfully forwarded to us by Jeannie Khouri)Our group was warned by American expatriates to avoid going out on the evening of Election Day in case the vote was close. They feared that the (relatively) new democracy of Indonesia would collapse under the strain of contentious politics.

It’s no wonder that experts were using words like “precipice” and phrases like “danger zone” and “knife-edge” to describe Indonesia’s political situation. In the wake of Thailand’s military coup, democracy in Southeast Asia appeared more fragile than anyone would have expected a mere six months ago.

Despite the fear of partisan conflict, the atmosphere at the polling place we visited was positively festive. Voting took place in a park in Central Jakarta. Next to the voting booths a gospel choir from Papua sang while voters old and young queued up to cast their votes. Voters openly displayed their personal allegiances by flashing one or two raised fingers (one for Prabowo, two for Jokowi).

Following the closure of the polls, a new controversy emerged as different quick counts indicated that each candidate had a slight lead – both declared themselves the winner. The majority of polling agencies, including the less partisan ones, showed Jokowi ahead. However, this did not stop the television stations, many owned by patrons linked to Prabowo, from running reports of his victory. These pre-emptive declarations did come at a cost though. Subsequently, two survey institutions that reported a Prabowo victory were booted from the country’s polling association. 

Democratic transition has always been a process fraught with complication and backsliding, yet Indonesia is showing that it can move forward towards a liberal democracy. The tentative selection of Jokowi, a former furniture salesman, indicates that Indonesian society is ready for leadership from sources outside the entrenched elites. Its civil society is strong enough to recognize and correct attempts to manipulate the voting process - like what many have accused the Prabowo camp of trying to do.

Tuesday's announcement of the final election results will hopefully decide things once and for all. It will set a precedent of transparent elections whose outcomes are respected by all parties, even the losing camp. 

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