Photo by Getty Images.

Photo by Getty Images.


James Giggacher looks at why Jokowi’s election win matters and what comes next for Indonesia’s seventh president.

Not so long ago, President Suharto’s authoritarian hold on Indonesia suddenly came loose.

An economic crisis and public dissent in 1998 brought his three-decade rule and New Order regime down. It was a collapse that not many experts, let alone pundits, saw coming.

Indonesia’s young democracy has just held its third direct presidential election since 2004. Once again the people have taken their political fate into their own hands and written the latest chapter in a thrilling story.

The election of former furniture maker, two-time Solo mayor and Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo, as the country’s seventh president, is the stuff of ‘feel good’ political drama. But, it’s no fiction.

Jokowi is the first leader without ties to Suharto-era New Order politics. He’s also promising an agenda of reform.

And as much as his rival, the cashed-up former military general Prabowo Subianto, claims that widespread fraud robbed him of certain victory, Jokowi will take the reins come 20 October.

So the Southeast Asian nation boldly turns the page. So strong is the hope for a new era, many experts see this election as the most important event in the country’s modern history.

“I think this was a really significant turning point for Indonesian democracy,” says Professor Edward Aspinall, who has just returned to the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific after following the election campaign closely for several months.

“It was an election where Indonesia was faced with a fork in the road.”

Down one path was a potential return to the authoritarian system of the past, under Prabowo, who had explicitly made his intentions to reverse Indonesia’s democratic gains if elected.

Among his more dubious promises was a return to the country’s 1945 constitution – a document that would do away with direct presidential elections and see the nation’s parliament choose its leaders. It was the dodgy feedback loop that Suharto used to stay on his military-enforced merry-go-round.

Down the other path was consolidation of the the country’s democratic institutions and systems under Jokowi.

“Thankfully the majority of Indonesians chose that second path,” says Aspinall.

And choose they did.

According to the electoral commission’s official count, delivered on 22 July, Jokowi romped home with 53 per cent of the national vote; some 8 million extra ballots. But while this is a sizeable margin, things weren’t looking so good in the lead up to the 9 July poll.

Prabowo, whose campaign Aspinall says “was borne aloft on a sea of cash” and the limitless resources of his incredibly wealthy and powerful backers, was also able to leverage a smear campaign against Jokowi and quickly close the gap on the former frontrunner in a tight two-horse race.

Something that seemed almost impossible in March, now was in grasp – a Prabowo victory.

“We actually have quite a lot of polling data that suggests this smear campaign was, in fact, rather effective,” says Aspinall.

But as harmful as Prabowo’s ‘black campaign’ was, there’s a Jokowi side to this story as well, points out Aspinall’s colleague Associate Professor Marcus Mietzner. He highlights Jokowi’s disorganised campaign and lack of clear vision for the country as a reason for driving voters to his rival’s camp.

“Based on polling numbers that go back three years, 17 to 23 per cent of voters really supported Prabowo from the beginning and supported everything he stood for, including his authoritarian design and vision for Indonesia,” says Mietzner.

“But the rest were added after March, when Jokowi started to campaign in the parliamentary elections and subsequently the presidential elections.

“A lot of these additional voters, and we are talking about 25 to 27 per cent, were disappointed by Jokowi, disappointed by his failure to offer a clear concept for Indonesia’s future.”

Prabowo’s nostalgia for a limited constitution and call for a ‘strong’ Indonesia seemed the perfect dose of history repeating for the country’s future.

Mietzner adds that many of these “pragmatic” voters turned back to Jokowi in the final week of the campaign, helping deliver him his six per cent margin of victory.

While the run-in came down to the wire, Jokowi’s real challenge is what comes next. There are a range of policy issues which need to be immediately addressed – least of all the urgent need to reform the economy and bolster a flagging social welfare system.

This will require deftly navigating the country’s labyrinthine parliament and bureaucratic networks which outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono found so difficult to cut through during his 10 years in power.

Beyond legislation there’s Prabowo and his legal challenge. Based on scant evidence, this should fail, his coalition should unravel and he will sulk on the margins for the next five years.

However if things go pear-shaped for Jokowi early, then “we would have to watch whether Prabowo could resurrect his political career, and become a significant pole of attraction,” warns Aspinall.

Then there’s the internal politics. One of the big questions is how Jokowi will relate to his political backers, Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (P-DIP).

“The main focus will be on Jokowi’s interaction with Megawati, but also on the interaction between Jokowi with Megawati’s daughter, Puan,” says Mietzner.

“These are two key relationships which will be troublesome no doubt; there will be conflicts over resources, policies, appointments, and that will mark the presidency in its first few years.”

There’s also the volunteers, who Mietzner says “really won this election for him” and may expect Jokowi to form his own party.

For Aspinall though, who has been watching Indonesian politics for decades, there is no doubt the country is in good hands. And it’s not just because Jokowi and his details-oriented, focus on technical solutions matches the demands of the times.

“I think in many ways, Jokowi has already performed perhaps the greatest service he’ll ever perform for his country, and that’s preventing Prabowo from becoming the president – a man who not only has deeply authoritarian instincts but also has a very unstable personality and could potentially be a very dangerous president.

“Simply by being elected and preventing his opponent from being elected, he’s already performed a great service.”

For a man who seems born to lead, Indonesia has now delivered him his most important part. Let’s hope Jokowi can stick to the script.

James Giggacher is Asia Pacific editor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. He has been covering the Indonesian elections with the New Mandala Indonesia Votes team.