Between Hope and Caution: One American’s View of Indonesia’s Election

Joko Widodo Campaigns Ahead Of Indonesia's Presidential Election
SOLO, INDONESIA - APRIL 09: Indonesian incumbent Presidential candidate Joko Widodo, addresses his supporters at the Sriwedari stadium during election campaign rally on April 9, 2019 in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia. Indonesia's general elections will be held on April 17 pitting incumbent President Joko Widodo against Prabowo who he defeated in the last election in 2014. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Indonesia’s latest and current experiment with democracy is twenty years old. The fifth national election to be held during that period is set to occur on 17 April 2019. More than 190 million Indonesians are eligible to vote. Those who do will elect the country’s president and vice-president and legislators at four different levels—national, provincial, district, and municipal. Since the collapse of General Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998, there have been no coups, and the process of campaigning and balloting every five years has proven to be peaceful with remarkably few and small exceptions.  So far so good. 

Regarding the top slot, this fifth election is a re-run of the fourth.  In 2014, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) ran for president against Prabowo Subianto and won.  The two men face each other again.  For the 2019 race, Jokowi picked Mar’uf Amin to be his vice-president; Prabowo picked Sandiaga Uno to be his.  All four men are Muslims.

Compared with Prabowo, Jokowi is a man of the people.  Jokowi is the first-ever Indonesian president with a non-elite background.  His first career was not in politics, and not in Indonesia’s megalopolis and capital, Jakarta, but in small business in Central Java.  He made and sold wood furniture in Surakarta, a city a fraction of Jakarta’s size.  He benefited from having begun his political career as Surakarta’s first directly elected mayor.  That post afforded him face-to-face contact with his constituents and gained him popularity based on his success in reforming governance, reducing corruption, and improving public services. 

Jokowi burnished that reputation as the elected governor of Jakarta.  Among his accomplishments on that larger scale were socioeconomic betterment and attention to public transportation.  Construction of Indonesia’s very first subway system began in Jakarta on Jokowi’s watch.  To his political advantage, the project’s first phase—ten miles of underground and elevated track—was completed and opened to the public in March 2019 mere weeks before the national election in April.

Prabowo’s father was a leading figure in Indonesia’s economy, diplomacy, and politics.  Prabowo was schooled in Europe before returning to Indonesia to embark upon a 24-year career in the army.  He rose to the rank of a lieutenant general, but his record was marred by association with violence and insubordination.  Especially brutal were his roles in crushing movements for independence from coercive Indonesian rule in East Timor and Papua and in the abusive repression of democracy activists during riots in Jakarta in 1998. When Indonesia transitioned to democratic rule later that year, he was, in effect, dishonorably discharged.  In 2000 he was denied an American visa, apparently on human rights grounds.  Upon leaving the military, Prabowo began a lucrative career in business. He lost the 2014 presidential election to Jokowi, 47-to-53 percent.

ndonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses to his supporters at the Kridosono stadium during election campaign rally on April 8, 2019 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses to his supporters at the Kridosono stadium during election campaign rally on April 8, 2019 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Muslims account for an estimated 87 percent of the 269 million people who live in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and the third largest democracy after India and America.  It is mathematically understandable that majoritarian Muslim faith and sentiment might drive the country’s politics.  But Indonesia is not an Islamic state.  Its leaders have, more or less effectively, curated an ethno-religiously plural national identity that legitimates not only Islam but, in theory, Buddhist, Catholic, Confucian, Hindu, and Protestant beliefs as well. 

When Jokowi ran for governor of Jakarta in 2012, his running mate was Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian Indonesian better known by his nickname “Ahok.”  When the ticket won, Ahok became vice-governor.  A man of probity and candor with a background in business and science, Ahok quickly earned kudos for his efforts to curb poverty, corruption, and traffic congestion, among other ills of the metropolis.  In 2014, when Jokowi took a leave of absence to run for president, Ahok replaced him as the acting governor of Jakarta. When Jokowi defeated Pabowo to become president later that year, Ahok became governor in his own right—the first-ever ethnic Chinese and the first non-Muslim in half a century to fill that position. Sinophobia has a long history in Indonesia. In the context of the economic and political crises that obliged Suharto to resign in 1998, for example, anti-Chinese mobs ran riot in Jakarta.  Prabowo, Suharto’s son-in-law at the time, may have been at least indirectly involved in that outbreak of racial violence.

In a speech in September 2016, Ahok made an unscripted reference to the possibility that, were he to run again, some Muslims might not vote for him.  But all he said was that voters should not believe those who intentionally lie about—misinterpret—verse 51 in Al-Ma’idah, a chapter in the Qur’an that seems to advise Muslims against becoming allies of Jews and Christians.  Some Islamists had indeed glossed that verse as an obligation for Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim to occupy public office.  An edited version of the video made it sound as though Ahok were not accusing some people of lying about what the verse meant, but was instead blaming the falsehood on the Qur’an itself—Allah’s own words.

The altered video went viral. Extreme Islamist organizations pressed for Ahok’s arrest and imprisonment for having violated Indonesia’s law on the Misuse and Insult of Religion.  He was tried, sentenced, and incarcerated in May 2017.

A man is draped with a flag showing the images of Indonesian President Joao Widodo and his Vice Presidential running mate Ma'ruf Amin at a concert and political rally for President Joko Widodo.
A man is draped with a flag showing the images of Indonesian President Joao Widodo and his Vice Presidential running mate Ma'ruf Amin at a concert and political rally for President Joko Widodo. Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Ahok regained his freedom in January 2019. When he was released, Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s presidential campaigns had already begun. Six months before, Jokowi’s partisan allies, knowing how closely associated with Ahok their candidate had been, had persuaded him to strengthen his Islamic appeal by choosing Mar’uf Amin to fill the vice-presidential slot on his ticket.  At the time, Amin chaired Indonesia’s if not the world’s largest independent Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Amin also headed a state-supported Indonesian Ulama Council that issues rulings ( fatwa ) on Islamic matters.  Under Amin’s leadership in November 2016, the Council had gone so far as to insist, in a statement he signed on the Council’s behalf, that verse 51 in Al-Ma’idah really does forbid Jews and Christians from becoming leaders and does obligate Muslims to choose to be led only by Muslims—and that to deny this is to insult the Qur’an, the ulama, and the Muslim community.  Yet there is nothing in Indonesia’s constitution or its laws that endorses, let alone requires, prejudicial voting—ballot-box communalism—of this kind.

Beyond boosting Jokowi’s image in the eyes of illiberal Muslims, Amin was an attractive choice for two other reasons as well:  NU’s demographic strength, notably in the heavily populated provinces of East and Central Java; and the hoped-for gravitas of Amin’s age and wisdom that some voters might read into his being 76 years old on election day—seventeen more than Jokowi’s 58.

In choosing Sandiago (“Sandi”) Uno for the vice-presidential slot on his ticket, Prabowo may also have taken age into account, but in the reverse direction.  Sixty-seven years old on election day, Prabowo may have chosen his running mate hoping to benefit from the image of relatively youthful energy and savvy modernity that Sandi, eighteen years younger, might evoke in voters’ minds.  Not to mention Sandi’s money.  Forbes Magazine ranked him 27 th among the 40 richest Indonesians in 2010, although he has since fallen off that list.  Sandi’s proven ability to attract support, having been elected vice-governor of Jakarta in 2017, likely also favored his selection. 

Sandi has an MBA from George Washington University. Whatever he learned about good business practices while there, however, did not prevent his name from surfacing in the “Paradise Papers” and in research by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, sources that linked him to shell companies registered in Panama, the British Virgin Islands, and other tax-haven locations.

Sandiaga Uno, Vice-Presidential candidate and running mate of Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto Waves to supporters
Sandiaga Uno, Vice-Presidential candidate and running mate of Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto Waves to supporters after giving a speech at the National Stadium on April 7, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images.

Prabowo did not excel in his televised debates with Jokowi.  The many polls conducted again and again during the campaign showed Jokowi ahead of Prabowo in the public’s opinion by as much as twenty percent.  As election day neared, the gap between the two men may have narrowed.  But that evidence may have been tainted by unreliable polls that Prabowo’s camp may have incentivized to exaggerate his support. [1]

Prabowo has in the past cultivated relations with Islamist figures and groups. A question to be settled on 17 April is whether Jokowi’s supporters among softer-line, mainstream Muslims and their associations will outvote the harder-line Islamist and more Sinophobic voters to whom Prabowo has appealed.  Relevant, too, is the credulity of voters regarding fake news on social media, including hoaxes designed to stoke fears of Chinese immigration.  One viral claim blamed Jokowi for welcoming investments from China to the point of making Indonesians compete for jobs with an influx of as many as ten million China-born workers. If official Indonesian data are accurate, of 95,335 foreign workers in the country in 2018, only 32,000 were from China. [2]

In the past, Indonesia has been lauded for exemplifying the compatibility of Islam and democracy and for cultivating ethnic tolerance as well.  For democracy to survive and succeed, however, as Americans are learning, it must be continually safeguarded and reconfirmed.  One of the concepts that will crucially affect the further institutionalization of democracy in Indonesia is the extent to which its large and ethnically Malay Muslim majority will be accountable to the country as a whole and not be demagogued into violating minority rights and freedoms.  A populist who inflames his partisan base should not enjoy immunity from oversight. Crucial, too, is the notion of a loyal opposition whose leader is willing and able to reaffirm allegiance to a system in which it has just lost an election fairly.  Additionally essential to the implementation of these core ideas, as polarized Americans are being reminded, is the empathy necessary to bridge identity-based cleavages by imagining oneself in the shoes or sandals of “the other.” 

In any event, one can hope for the best: that the fifth electoral testing of Indonesia’s two-decades-long experiment with democratic rule in 2019, and the 59th American presidential election in 2020, including their respective aftermaths, will reinvigorate the purpose and power of democratic principles as inoculations against the risks, in both countries, of authoritarian division from within.

Donald K. Emmerson last visited Indonesia in December 2018 to speak at the 11th  Bali Democracy Forum.  Without implicating them in the above, he is grateful to Bill Liddle, Wayne Forrest, and Lisa Lee for helpful comments on its first draft.

[1] Compare Seth Soderberg, “Indonesia: How the Polls are Performing,” 15 April 2019, New Mandala , , with Malvyandie Haryadi, “Hasil Survei Pilpres Terbaru: 7 Lembaga Survei Menangkan Jokowi, 4 Lembaga Unggulkan Prabowo,” (Latest Presidential Election Surveys: 7 Surveyers Show Jokowi Winning, 4 Surveyers Put Prabowo on Top), , 10 April 2019, .

[2] Amy Chew, “‘Let’s Copy Malaysia’: Fake News Stokes Fears for Chinese Indonesians,” South China Morning Post , 7 April 2019, .