The war is not over yet. Indonesians have voted, and most credible quick counts have declared Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo the winner. But former general Prabowo Subianto has not surrendered — instead, he, too, has claimed victory.
It will be a nervous two weeks as the national election commission compiles on paper the results before making an official declaration by July 22. It will strain the country, but so far in this election season the seven commissioners have demonstrated a level-headedness and methodical approach under pressure. As they do their job, Indonesia remains a nation in waiting.
Despite virulent rumours spread by SMS, no violence materialised on election day. Indonesians should be proud, but celebrations have been postponed. Fears persist, and police pre-emptively banned spontaneous parades in Jakarta and in Bali, where Jokowi, as the apparent victor is widely known, was expected to have a landslide. There were fewer logistical hiccups than the legislative election in April. In praiseworthy feat, 71% of 190 million voters cast ballots.
Each campaign claimed victory after parallel vote tabulations. These are not exit polls, which are unreliable and often done by volunteers. “Quick counts” are professionally administered random samples of actual results from 2000 of the 478,685 polling stations; each has a confidence level of 95% and margin of error of 1%. Seven established firms conducted the surveys that called Jokowi the winner, roughly by a 5% margin. These included the leading non-aligned Kompas media group (52.34% v. 47.66%) and state-owned Radio Republic Indonesia (52.54% v.47.46%). More or less in line with most opinion polls, Jakarta wonks say their similarity suggests the methodology is mature and accurate. They note the four survey firms reporting Prabowo ahead are either new or known to have close relationships with him.
Prabowo’s campaign “success team” head Mahfud MD on Wednesday declared that a “psy war” had begun. After a dirty race, more black ops should be expected to influence the final outcome. The banner ads on every Indonesian news site shouts the quick counts that favour their candidate. The toothless Indonesian Broadcasting Commission rebuked leading networks Metro TV and TVOne, respectively owned by Jokowi and Prabowo supporters, for excessive bias. Global TV, RCTI and MNC TV all owned by the same mogul, were cited for violating the cooling-off period with pro-Prabowo programming. The powerless watchdog cannot stop the networks taking sides; it will remain difficult for voters to parse news from spin.
With the race tight, election observers believe the loser will almost certainly go to the Constitutional Court, especially since Mahfud is a former chief justice. It is an imperfect institution to make such close calls. Once respected for being Indonesia’s cleanest, the Constitutional Court is now discredited. Its last chief justice, Akil Mochtar, was sentenced on June 30 to life in prison for accepting more than USD$5 million in bribes to influence rulings in election cases.
Mahfud was chosen not only for his legal prowess, but his Islamic credentials. He was the preferred candidate for many from the largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), once headed by Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid. Its political party backed Jokowi. Wahid’s home town of Jombang in East Java province was on Wednesday the centre of vote-buying allegations made against Prabowo’s side. One polling station chief was accused of distributing envelopes of cash. Similar vote buying was reported in nearby Tulungagung, Kediri and Madiun.
Overseas concerns about Prabowo’s infamous reputation matter little in these places most foreigners cannot find without Google Earth. This ground war for the highest national office has been a local struggle fought in the kampungs by minor party officials, obscure community leaders, idealistic neighbourhood activists, Machiavellian paid proxies and thugs. They play on deep communal loyalties, religion, family ties, avarice, and sometimes even intimidation — anything that works. Policies often play a secondary role. In East Java, what we think in the West is irrelevant.
A new battle for legitimacy over whom to trust is now taking place. The media, quick counts, election commission, or Constitutional Court? The answer may be none of the above, but this slow process by imperfect institutions will eventually deliver a result most Indonesians will accept.
*Jim Della-Giacoma is a visiting fellow in the Department of Social and Political Change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific