Indonesians go to the polls today. President Joko Widodo will once again face off against former lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto in a re-run of the 2014 election. This time around, however, the race has been vastly different. The hope promised by Widodo five years ago has subsided, and the nation’s darker undercurrents of intolerance have bubbled to the surface.
With legislative elections being held simultaneously with the presidential poll for the first time, and 190 million Indonesians eligible to vote, it is widely being seen as the biggest single-day poll in human history. India’s current election (for which there are 900 million eligible voters), in contrast, is taking place on seven separate polling days over five weeks.
There are over 800,000 polling places and as The Australia-Indonesia Centre explains, voters will “elect 136 members of the national Regions House, a kind of weak Senate, together with 575 members of the powerful House of Representatives. In addition they will elect 2,207 provincial level MPs from the 34 Provinces and also elect 17,610 local councillors across more than 500 local authorities.”
All of this, at least, is something of a triumph for democracy. In early 1998, when the country was still in the grip of Suharto’s dictatorship, few, if any, would have picked Indonesia, of the 10 ASEAN nations, as the country that would have the best functioning democracy of the group two decades hence.
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The fact Indonesia is now heading into its fourth fully free and fair election, where the military has no guarantee of seats in the parliament, as it did for a series of polls after the collapse of the Suharto’s rule 21 years ago, is remarkable; yet democracy in south-east Asia’s most populous nation, the Muslim world’s largest, is now arguably more under threat than at any time in the past 15 years.
It’s an election that should be watched closely by Australians, were we not so distracted by our own upcoming vote because it has highlighted just how much Indonesia is perhaps not so much changing but showing its real face to the world.
The steady creep of conservative Islam has been the underlying theme of both this election and the years leading up to it, whipped up by radical ulamas (the Bahasa word for mullahs). It reached something of an early peak with the 2017 conviction of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Widodo ally and a Christian, who was released from jail in January 2018.
Prabowo has attempted to counter Widodo’s popularity with Trump-style Islam-based nationalism, railing against foreigners in election rallies. Widodo countered this by unexpectedly selecting Ma’ruf Amin, 75, chairman of Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country’s council of Islamic leaders and head of Nahdlatul Ulama — the nation’s (and world’s) largest Muslim organisation — as his vice-presidential running mate. Prabowo’s running mate is articulate business tycoon Sandiaga Uno, 49.
Widodo’s first term has been something of a mixed success. While he has failed to deliver on promises of 7% GDP growth, the current run rate of 5% is only bettered by the Philippines and Vietnam in the major ASEAN economies. He has delivered on infrastructure finally seeing Jakarta’s first ever metro train line opened — it had previously been the biggest city with out one before this — just ahead of the election, as well as new airport terminals and rail projects.
Where he has fallen down is on his promise to address corruption and to dismantle traditional elites. As well, he has taken a very tough line on drugs, which has seen drug traffickers, including Australian Bali Nine ringleaders Andre Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, executed. A “commoner” by Indonesian political/military elite standards, the former furniture trader has surrounded himself with Suharto-era military advisers, including the infamous Wiranto who is accused of massacres in Timor-Leste.
Widodo leads Prabowo in polls, who he beat by six points in the 2014 election, although the margin has narrowed in recent weeks. But already the election has been marred by pre-poll irregularities in Malaysia and Sydney including the discovery of a stash of ballots in Kuala Lumpur pre-marked for Widodo.
There is some concern that if the election is close once again Prabowo may pull the same stunt as last time and refuse to accept the result. In 2014, he spent three months making court challenges until all avenues were exhausted. This time around, seasoned political supporters of Prabowo have promised street protests, which have become increasingly common in the capital in recent years, if they believe he has been “robbed”.
The military has 500,000 people ready for polling day, and the police are aiming for a similar number so we can only hope that does not happen.