Indonesia’s presidential election: What’s at stake?


indonesia elections reuters
Indonesian presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto (2nd Left) and Joko Widodo, gesture with their running mates Hatta Rajasa (Left) and Jusuf Kalla, after drawing their ballot numbers at the Election Commission in June 2014.
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Eyes remain focused on Indonesia as votes for candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto are counted in the country’s landmark presidential election.

On Wednesday, the polls reflected a precariously even divide between Widodo, also referred to as "Jowoki," the governor of Jakarta, and Prabowo, an ex-general and son-in-law of the country’s former dictator Suharto. Initial polls show Jowoki holds a slight lead, but the government has yet to declare an outright winner, with neither side conceding at the moment. 

Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Shorenstein APARC, answers a few questions about the election and what it could mean for Indonesia’s fledging democracy.

This election will transfer power from incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first to lead the country since its democratic transition. Is this election a turning point for Indonesia?

It is. It is only the third direct presidential election in the history of Indonesia. The first two, in 2004 and 2009, yielded landslide victories for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), giving him two consecutive presidential terms as president. His large margins of victory were, in effect, incontestable. In contrast, the presidential election on 9 July is being sharply contested, based on various "quick count" estimates of who won and by how much. Some of those estimates say that Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") has won. A smaller number of estimates assign victory to his opponent, Prabowo Subianto. These estimated margins of "quick count" success by one candidate over the other are typically small: the differences run between 1 and 5 percent.

These small margins asserted on behalf of contradictory outcomes have politicized the voting-and-counting procedure and stimulated fears of fraud. Prabowo in particular appears to be challenging the legitimacy of a possible win by Jokowi when the official result is announced. That announcement is scheduled to be made by the General Elections Commission on 22 July.

If the official margin of victory is very slender, whether for Jokowi or for Prabowo, the losing campaign could request a ruling on the matter by the Constitutional Court. If the request is taken up by the court, another month could elapse before a legal judgment is issued. Under this alarming if hypothetical scenario, Indonesia's political future could remain in a prolonged limbo conducive to major unrest. 

Given that the polls reflect a tightly contested race, will the losing party accept defeat?

Who knows? It will depend on what happens. That said, there are powerful reasons to believe that the loser, whoever he is, will think twice before taking his case to the streets. The onus on such vengeance as endangering Indonesia's fledgling democracy would be great. We also need to remember that if, as many expect, the election commission (and perhaps, later, the Constitutional Court) validates Jokowi as the next president, he is likely to face a parliamentary majority that supported Prabowo. Indeed, only 37 percent of the seats in the main national legislature are occupied by members of parties that endorsed Jokowi. If Prabowo is declared the loser, and the evidence of electoral malfeasance is absent or minor, Prabowo may accept having lost if he knows he can retain substantial influence over national policy while preparing for another presidential run in 2019. 

Both candidates campaigned on widespread platforms that called for reform in many areas ­– from energy to anti-corruption. What issues are Indonesians most concerned about?

Basically, poverty and corruption. But many Indonesians allocate their votes based less on policy distinctions than on the personalities of the candidates. Prabowo's ability to catch up with Jokowi in popularity during the campaign reflects in no small measure his more charismatic and commanding personality in contrast to Jokowi's relatively lackluster performance.

What steps can the next administration take to keep Indonesia from slipping back to its authoritarian past?

The two candidates are very different in this regard. Prabowo is a former general. He has been implicated in major violations of human rights. He is linked to the autocratic regime that preceded Indonesia's current democratic experiment. One can imagine many steps that Prabowo could take as president to nudge Indonesia back onto its former authoritarian track. He has already said that direct elections are not good for Indonesia.  

As for Jokowi, were he to become president, his task would be to achieve a level of probity and progress in Indonesia sufficient to convince the country that democracy can be effective not just in theory but in practice as well.


Emmerson also spoke about the election with Deutsche Welle on 16 July, and the Voice of America on 9 July.