The 2014 Indonesian Presidential Election and the New Delhi-Jakarta Bilateral

20 Aug, 2014    ·   4620

Ambassador Navrekha Sharma deconstructs the recently concluded Indonesian presidential election and explains why it is important that India takes notice

Indonesia’s citizens, majority of who value human rights and religious pluralism, can breathe more easily after July 22 when the KPK (Indonesia’s Election Commission) announced victory for Joko Widodo and Yusuf Kalla as the country’s seventh President and his Vice President. Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, won a convincing 53% of the vote as against 47% won by his rival, Subianto Prabowo. 

The Presidential campaign of 2014 was however, the most polarising and divisive ever in Indonesia and its scars will take a while to go away. Already, Prabowo has charged Jokowi with election fraud and appealed to the Constitutional Court for redressal even though the prospect of him being able to overturn the verdict is practically nil given that Jokowi has won by 8 million votes!

Why then has Prabowo appealed? It is essentially because his approach to the Court has been made from a deep rooted sense of entitlement which comes from belonging to Indonesia’s  powerful politico- military elite .This elite has held the reins of power ever since Indonesia  was recognised as an independent country. For the first 50 years, she was ruled by two successive dictators, Sukarno and Suharto, both of whom were from the entrenched Javanese aristocracy. But even after  1998,  when Suharto was overthrown and democracy, restored,  the same  elite  has continued to wield power  – until Jokowi  overturned  the  political tables.

Jokowi, who started his working life as a furniture dealer in Solo (near Yogyakarta) has been described as a “child of the slums.” Prabowo Subianto on the other hand is a former army general, the son of Indonesia’s former leading economist and son-in-law of President Suharto, and hence could not be more different in birth, wealth, education and experience.  It is important to remember that Jokowi’s very achievement in breaking the “glass ceiling” of elitist politics was possible only because of Indonesia’s Democratic Revolution (Revolusi) after which power was devolved to the provinces and districts. So it was only because of the events of 1998 that a grassroots leadership could emerge.  The victory of Jokowi is thus not an ordinary, run of the mill achievement: it reflects a significant evolution of democracy in Indonesia.  A Prabowo victory, while it may not have reversed Democracy (given the powerful support Democracy enjoys amongst Indonesia’s people) would certainly have kept it from evolving.  

The political stakes being extremely high for the defenders of the “status quo”, the Prabowo campaign was vicious with no holds barred.  From describing Jokowi as Chinese and a Christian Communist to (now) making him out to have won by fraud, Prabowo tried every trick in the book to destroy his spirit, and reputation. Jokowi (in the interim after the end of the campaign and before the votes were cast) even had to make a quick dash to Mecca to prove his Islamic credentials.  This was indeed the most worrying part of the 2014 election, i.e. Prabowo’s willingness to use religion as a political weapon. Notwithstanding the fact that his own mother and brother are Christians, Prabowo built his election coalition around a group of Muslim parties which included the Islamic Defenders Front which has been responsible over the last several years for attacks on the church and also on so-called deviant Muslim sects, the Shias and Ahmadiyyas.  His manifesto included a pledge to purify religion which could have marked (even if taken with a pinch of salt as election rhetoric), for an easy-going and essentially liberal country a change of direction, with adverse   implications for India. One must mention however in this connection that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) weakness in not leading from the front to prevent attacks on minority religions and sects is an important factor which has already taken its toll on Indonesia’s credibility as a Pluralist State.

Another equally serious offer of Prabowo’s campaign was to reverse Indonesia’s Democracy. Here again a pinch of salt is necessary for as stated earlier, democracy has taken root in Indonesia and people will not easily abandon it. Nevertheless, Prabowo in his speeches called democracy a Western concept, unsuited to the culture and traditions of Indonesia. He indicated that if elected, he would be a strong but benevolent ruler of a style more suited to the Indonesian psyche. He projected himself as the man on horseback (literally!) who would save the country from her enemies, amongst them not only Western style democracy but also foreign investors bent upon exploiting Indonesia’s rich natural resources (and poor infrastructure, technology and capital shortages). Evidently, he was counting on dissatisfaction with economic conditions amongst Indonesia’s poor (more than 100 million Indonesians live on less than $2 a day) as well as on the middle-class’s fears of unemployment and their combined nostalgia for the past which is normal under such circumstances. His campaign speeches caused enough fear and alarm amongst sections of intellectual opinion in Indonesia to make the respected English daily Jakarta Post take the unprecedented step of declaring support for Jokowi as editorial policy.

Prabowo’s rapidly growing voter-support (and Jokowi’s shrinking margin from 30% to 6% in a few months) clearly showed that he was hitting the right note, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.  It is true that the parliament, from being a mere rubber stamp under Suharto has today become extremely powerful (but more as a naysayer) and also very corrupt.  The Corruption Eradication Commission has already put in jail the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court (the same office to which Prabowo has appealed) and 21 Governors. However, Indonesia’s failures lie more with individuals than with institutions.  President SBY is famous for his indecisiveness which has paralysed government functioning. Prabowo used the public’s dissatisfaction to suggest that Jokowi’s short experience of just ten years in public life (and that too at the provincial level) would bring the country to a worse pass. He urged people to vote for him on the grounds that Indonesia would be safer in his experienced hands.

This message did carry appeal, especially when he appeared in military uniform and on horseback at election rallies. An element of extreme nationalism and xenophobia has been part of the Indonesian psyche for a long time starting from Sukarno to Suharto, although it was thought to have disappeared under democracy. The consequence of Prabowo’s fiery and muscular campaigns was to raise the rhetoric of competitive economic nationalism on both sides and cause fear among foreign investors (among which there are many Indians too) to invest in Indonesia. 

To bolster these two diatribes, Prabowo used all the political machinery and resources of money and media at his command. His support base included major political parties such as the Golkar Party of the Suharto era, as well as SBY’s ruling Democratic Party. Additionally, he had support of most of the Muslim parties. After the 2013 parliamentary elections, Prabowo’s coalition partners command 52% of the 560 seats in parliament as against Jokowi’s PDI-P-led coalition, which has about 40% parliamentary seats. Armed with these formidable political advantages, Prabowo, in a few months of campaigning, had reduced Jokowi’s lead from 30% to 6%. In the end, however, big money and powerful media interests lost while Jokowi’s charismatic appeal of simple and honest leadership, of being a man of the masses, won the day.

But the finish was nail biting.

Indeed, it is creditable that, in these circumstances of vicious personal attacks and creation of a fear psychosis, Jokowi‘s victory speech delivered on the day of the officially announced verdict, was graceful and mild mannered as was his entire campaign. He thanked rivals Prabowo and his Vice Presidential partner Hatta Rajasa for “being friends in a political competition to get the peoples’ mandate to lead the country for the next five years.”  Prabowo certainly had not behaved like a friendly rival!

Given the high stakes involved in terms of democracy and pluralism (not only for Indonesia but for the ASEAN as a whole in which Indonesia is the dominant player), it is disquieting that India’s press did not reflect much interest in her presidential election. Despite geographical proximity, old cultural links, growing trade and investment stakes for Indian businesses, and above all, the importance of  Indonesia for India’s own security (her Maritime Security in particular), the Indian press did little justice to these  momentous events next door. Even the most widely circulated newspapers paid very little attention to them.

Instead of sending reporters to cover the news (as media from across the world was doing), India’s news media preferred to lift news about the Indonesian presidential elections from international news agency reports.  The Indian Express was alone in carrying an editorial, titled “A People’s President? in which  Indonesia was held up, as a model for nascent democracies “particularly in the Arab world.” The statement overlooks the fact that even India’s much older democracy has not produced many prime ministers without a family link in politics and with just ten years of experience in public life!

Foreign Policy (and relations with India in particular) did not get discussed much but several parallels with India came up during the Indonesia campaign. Arvind Kejriwal, for example, when he was elected as the Chief Minister of Delhi, briefly became the model for the Jokowi campaign which was based on a similar platform of clean and accountable Government which would fight corruption and bureaucratic red tape. Later, commentators took pains to explain that there was always a clear and marked difference between the two:  Jokowi, as twice- elected Mayor of Solo followed by a short stint as Governor of Jakarta, had a proven track record which Kejriwal lacked. Jokowi’s hands-on approach to governance and success in executing, transparently and with full accountability, some well designed schemes for peoples’welfare (such as a popular subsidised healthcare program and a scheme of relocating thousands from flood-prone areas) gave his campaign immense credibility.  

Hurtful comparisons were also made with the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh relationship by the Prabowo camp who said that Jokowi as the President of Indonesia would, for lack of experience, become a “puppet” in the hands of the Party President, Megawati Sukarnoputri.  A few months before the presidential election was to take place and in recognition of his growing popularity, Ibu Mega had given up her own bid for the Indonesian presidency in favour of Jokowi. Now that he has won, the question which is being asked (softly) is whether he will be able to hold his own against Puan Maharani, Ibu Mega’s daughter, who will in all probability, be elected to the post of party president in mid-2015.  Jokowi has already said he is not interested in the post. Denial of a US visa to Prabowo because of his Human Rights record in East Timor was compared with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s career in Gujarat and encouragement obtained from the fact that India’s Prime Minister was assured a US visa promptly after becoming PM.

Such indian motifs added colour to the campaign as reflected in the Indonesian press and perhaps there is nothing surprising about it, given the back-to-back timing of these two events. However, the lack of a reciprocal interest in India was not only disappointing, but could also be hurtful to India’s long-term interests in Indonesia. Given the importance of the issues projected in the 2014 election, India’s own security in her eastern sea board would require her to be vigilant and to preempt events, not merely to react to them when they happen. Events in the South China Sea in particular are taking place rapidly and we need to be closely aligned with the Indonesians to be able to anticipate and deal with them. As the larger partner in a Strategic Partnership, it behoves India to show more interest (although not of the kind that was shown by the US Ambassador in Jakarta who actually told the Indonesians that a vote for Prabowo would be dangerous because of his human rights record). 

We need to wait until October when Jokowi will be installed as Indonesia’s seventh president to see what he does with his mandate.  The first indications will come from his choice of cabinet colleagues.  President SBY, after the 2009 election, appointed cabinet colleagues on the basis of party representation and not merit – which was unnecessary given his huge mandate. The policy paralysis (and corruption) in the last government have been attributed to this weakness apart from his own indecisiveness. Given that Indonesia’s is a presidential system, Jokowi as President should try to restore the balance between the presidency and parliament wherever required.

Unfortunately, he does not enjoy a comparably large mandate as SBY’s in 2009 and parliamentary seats have been skewed against him after April; but he has demonstrated that he has the courage to lead from the front. He also has good advisors on his team, especially in foreign policy – the brilliant head of the CSIS, Rizal Sukma, is with him, and could become Indonesia’s next foreign minister. There is talk already of the Golkar party shifting support to Jokowi, a move in which the role of his astute and experienced Vice President-elect Yusuf Kalla will be important. 
To conclude, the 2014 Presidential election marked a major step forward for Indonesia. Pluralism and democracy have won and we must welcome this twin victory whole heartedly. An early outreach to Jokowi by the Indian government would be advisable.