Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Surprisingly Quiet Election

In an era of increased electoral polarization and agitation, what are the lessons of Indonesia’s tame campaign?

By Nithin Coca for
Indonesia’s Surprisingly Quiet Election

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin wave to journalists after a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Quiet. Boring. Stable. Just two years after a dramatic race ousted a minority governor, Indonesia’s concurrent presidential and parliamentary elections were downright tame, a stark contrast to dramatic, highly contested – and sometimes vicious – elections that took place last month in Thailand and are ongoing in India. Nor was it anything like the fake news and hate-filled elections in the United States and the Philippines in recent years.

“The election was peaceful,” says Patrick Ziegenhain, a Jakarta-based scholar and currently a visiting professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia. “No tension, no mass demonstrations, no huge campaign activities. It was more peaceful than previous elections in 2017 and 2014.”

Despite a long campaigning period, several debates, and numerous news stories, polls only shifted marginally over the past year. Pollster quick counts show incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo leading by about 8-10 percentage points – larger than his margin in 2014. Campaigning was mostly normal and rallies were peaceful. Even disinformation played a marginal role, with a poll from Saiful Mujani released before the election showing that few hoaxes were resonating with Indonesian voters.

While opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto seems bent on contesting the results, most of the country has responded with a yawn. Only about 1,000 people showed up at his South Jakarta home for a post-election speech, timed to take place after Friday prayers, a paltry figure for a city of 10 million. In public discourse, he is looking more and more like a sore loser, and there are even rumors that his running mate, Sandiaga Uno, is distancing himself from Prabowo, as many note his conspicuous absence or lack of enthusiasm at post-election events.

So why was Indonesia’s election so tame, compared to both the 2017 Jakarta governor’s race, when incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok” was defeated in a campaign where fake news, viral memes, and derogatory religious and ethnic rhetoric played a key role, and even the 2014 presidential race? In an era where countries around the world are seeing increased polarization and agitation around campaigns, are there lessons from Indonesia’s campaign? Part of it was the ability to learn from past experiences, both domestically and abroad, and be prepared.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“Overall there was far more preparation and security for this election than for the 2017 Jakarta Governor’s race,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beyond the passing of controversial laws that allowed for the banning of groups like the Hizbut Tahrir, which helped organize the 2017 anti-Ahok movement. The government also set up a fake news monitoring center to tackle misinformation, going as far as to arrest the creators of hoaxes, including one alleging that tampered ballots were coming in from China pre-selected for Jokowi, and the housewife creators of a video alleging that the incumbent would make gay marriage legal.

Credit should also be given to Jokowi, who has proven himself an adept campaigner. While he hasn’t kept all of his 2014 promises, including, notably, his pledges to address human rights, he has made real progress on expanding the country’s social welfare system, investing in infrastructure, and growing the economy. He has also been able to maintain his image as a clean everyman, and still takes impromptu public visits to markets, and recently rode a crowded train to and from work like any other commuter.

Many see his choice of Ma’ruf Amin, albeit with significant outside pressure, as a key factor in defusing the potential for an Islamic-based opposition candidacy. However, the initial polls show that his presence may have not had such a large impact, as Jokowi performed worse than 2014 in more conservative Muslim-majority provinces like Aceh, West Sumatra, and South Sumatra.

It may also be time to reassess the conventional wisdom of the Jakarta governor’s race. At the time, some saw it as a sign that Indonesia was turning toward conservative Islam. Others noted that the race likely had to do as much with Ahok’s Chinese ethnicity, and his unique personality and proneness for speaking his mind, than religion. It is looking increasingly likely that the anti-Ahok mobilizations were a unique moment, not the signs of a deeper trend.

In fact, there is a tendency to overly focus on religion, and in particular Islam, when analyzing Indonesian politics. Even in this election, which lacked 2017 style mass mobilizations, religion has already been deemed the deciding factor by many international media outlets. Look at the post-election headlines at the New York Times (“Faith Politics on the Rise as Indonesian Islam Takes a Hard-Line Path”) or Reuters (“In Indonesia’s election, the winner is Widodo – and Islam”).

The reality is more complicated. Even in the conservative provinces that Jokowi lost, religion may not have been decisive. According to one source, Jokowi’s advisers saw lower commodity prices for palm oil and rice as likely factors in his lower vote figures in agriculture-dominated provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan. In Indonesia, the economy – as in most democracies – can trump religion at the polls. Moreover Prabowo, the supposedly Islamist candidate, often mentioned the fact that his maternal family is Christian, as are two of his siblings. Jokowi’s pandering to Islam did not stop him from participating in Hindu festivities while campaigning in Bali.

The big question is if Jokowi will be any different during his second term than he was in his first. Comparing his record to Prabowo’s – a former general with a widely documented record of human rights abuses – only makes him good in comparison.

“Jokowi is, marginally, a more effective guardian of Indonesian democracy than Prabowo,” said Kurlantzick. But his record gives him, and others, pause. “There is the use of dubious laws to stifle free speech, the crackdown on some of his opponents… and he has not expressed much interest in really stopping the growing crackdown on minorities.”

Few expect Jokowi, even without the shackles of having to prepare for re-election, to change much. He went out of his way, since 2014, to build ties with entrenched powers like the military, appointing traditional power-brokers such as former generals Wiranto and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan to his cabinet, giving them power over critical portfolios.

“Jokowi will continue like the last five years, people will complain about human rights in Papua, or that the LGBT community is not being accepted, or of discrimination against minorities,” said Ziegenhain. “This cannot be turned around in the next five years.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is a lost opportunity for a young democracy. Hope for real reform may have to wait until 2024, when Jokowi’s successor will be elected. As of right now, that race looks wide open. Jokowi does not have a designated successor, as Ma’ruf Amin will be 80 then, likely too old to run. The same can be said of Prabowo, who has now lost three elections as a presidential or vice presidential candidate and will be 72 in 2024. Many expect Sandiaga to take the mantle as leader of Prabowo’s Gerindra party and become the leader of the opposition. While Sandiaga has issues, including allegations of corruption, and was the running mate of the tandem that used religion to take down Ahok in 2017, he’s a fairly mainstream, pro-business politician, far from a polarizing Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump, or Narendra Modi figure. Whether another, outsider candidate emerges seemingly from nowhere, as Jokowi did in 2014, remains to be seen.

It is telling that an election that changed little and was noteworthy for its stability and continuity is seen as global success. Compare 2019 to the situation a little over 20 years ago, when Indonesia was undergoing a financial crisis and emerging from the three-decades long Suharto dictatorship, and the progress looks remarkable, in some ways astounding that democracy has survived. But take a more narrow lens and it’s less clear how much the country has improved when it comes to openness, transparency, and inclusivity under Jokowi or his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“It will take time for democracy in Indonesia to grow, but it’s better under Jokowi than Prabowo,” said Ziegenhain.

The most that can be said is that Indonesia has not seen its democracy deteriorate to the extent that Thailand, the Philippines, or India have. More of the same, or stability, is now seen as a mark or progress.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.