Watching the world’s largest Muslim democracy head to the polls

While Indonesia is no friend of Israel, it is a rapidly growing powerhouse in the Asian region and global watchers should take note.

Indonesia's presidental candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures as he leaves a campaign rally in Ciparay near Bandung, West Java, on July 3. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Indonesia's presidental candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures as he leaves a campaign rally in Ciparay near Bandung, West Java, on July 3.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One week ago, on July 9, 140 million Indonesian voters trooped to the polls; next week, on July 22, the vote total will be officially released. When it is, it will likely be declared the largest national election to have ever occurred outside of India.
This election was unprecedentedly heated, an often vicious campaign that pitted Joko Widodo (Jokowi) – a former furniture salesman and political outsider, running a campaign based on his pragmatic, downto- earth governing style – against Prabowo Subianto, a right-wing candidate once reviled for human rights abuses he committed as the commander of Indonesian special forces, who successfully refashioned himself into a visionary nationalist candidate.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, the world’s third most populous democracy – after India and the US – and is by far the most powerful country in ASEAN, the coalition of Southeast Asian states that is considered a crucial bulwark against Chinese claims in the region. It is a member of the G-20 and its economy is growing at over 5 percent a year.
Indeed, Indonesian growth has continued, untrammeled during the worldwide economic slowdown, and political scientists frequently refer to Indonesia as Asia’s “third superpower” – a country, if its growth trajectory remains steady, that will dominate the region alongside China and India.
IN ANY case, this has been, in the most important respects, an extremely inspiring election.
Indonesians, like people all over the world, complain frequently that their democracy offers them little in the way of real choice, and that they end up deciding between corrupt insiders of one party vs corrupt insiders from another. No one is making that complaint after this election.
The two candidates are, in almost every way, polar opposites.
Jokowi was born into a peasant family, and started a small but successful furniture business. He began his political career a decade ago as the mayor of Surakarta, a midsized Indonesian city, and became a nationally respected figure for his consultative leadership style and his habit of visiting slums and coming up with common-sense solutions to solve the poor’s problems.
Fifteen years into the democratic era, Indonesians continue to choose political leaders based on their prestige, often afforded due to their military background or their family ties to historic Indonesian leaders.
Yet Jokowi has never served in the military, and has no family connections to anyone in politics. He is popular because he scorns pomp and has delivered real results as mayor of Surakarta and governor of the capital of Jakarta – including establishing universal healthcare for residents of both cities.
Prabowo, in contrast, is the son-in-law of late dictator Suharto, and has run an extremely macho campaign, arguing that he is the candidate who is firm enough, visionary enough, powerful enough, to transform Indonesia.
Whereas Jokowi has argued for a bottom-up approach to Indonesian politics, Prabowo’s approach has been resolutely top-down. The differences were stark and were made apparent over the course of five televised debates.
Prabowo, also, has made many worrying statements about his commitment to upholding key elements of Indonesia’s democracy if elected.
The strengths and weaknesses of both candidates have been widely dissected in the nation’s media. Is Jokowi firm enough to govern this huge country? Is Prabowo flexible enough to abide by democratic constraints? Voters were given very clear options in this election.
Jokowi is enormously popular in Indonesia and had been leading in the polls by as many as 30 points. However, his campaign was underfunded and run haphazardly, and Prabowo supporters successfully launched a tabloid, Obor Rakyat (Society in Flames), which alleged that Jokowi was not a Muslim, but a Christian of Chinese descent. In an echo of American politics, Jokowi was forced to release his birth certificate – proving that he is in fact Muslim, not Christian – and remained on the defensive throughout the campaign.
Moreover, Prabowo was backed by most of Indonesia’s major media owners, and received favorable coverage that did not explore with any depth his frequent statements that democracy was a Western concept unsuited for Indonesians.
Before election day, polls showed the two candidates neck and neck, with the difference between them within many polls’ margins of error. When voting closed on Wednesday, quick counts – representative samples of the vote taken from districts throughout Indonesia – consistently showed Jokowi had won the election by four to six points. The polling organizations that showed a Jokowi victory have a very good track record of accuracy, and Jokowi’s campaign declared victory based on the results. Prabowo – citing counts that have him ahead but are not considered credible, because the media organizations that commissioned them have close ties to his campaign – also declared victory. The upshot: There are currently two Indonesian presidential candidates who have declared themselves the winner of this election.
This was a little over a week ago, and Indonesian politics has been tense since. Things have not gotten out of hand, however; there has been no violence, and both candidates have pledged to peacefully back down if they are proven to lose. In part, this is because current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who is near-universally derided as ineffective, met with both candidates immediately after voting concluded, and had them affirm the importance of following the democratic process. SBY rightly believes that his legacy will be greatly affected if the president who succeeds him wins because of fraud.
Everyone in Indonesia is waiting until the official count is released on July 22, which should confirm that one of the two (almost certainly Jokowi) is the winner. Jokowi supporters remain greatly concerned about fraud and worry that Prabowo – who has massive campaign coffers, and the backing of the current ruling party and much of the military – will find some way to muddy the results and swing the election in his favor. If Prabowo manages that feat, however, it will only be because he mounted a supremely organized logistical operation.
Assuming the most credible pollsters are correct, his supporters would have to have found ways to switch millions of votes from Jokowi to Prabowo. There would be a massive paper trail, and an army of domestic and international observers has committed in advance to dredging through the data if the credible polls end up differing substantially from the reported vote.
Indonesian democracy experts I spoke with think that fraud will only affect the result on the margins, and that Jokowi’s berth is large enough to be fraud-proof.
Thus far, Indonesia’s democratic institutions have demonstrated they are able to handle a tight race.
Now, we just have to wait until July 22 to figure out who they chose.