People’s President

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Joko Widodo gestures to supporters in Jakarta on July 23, a day after he won the presidential election. Photo: REUTERS

Prabowo Subianto, the ex-general who lost the election, has mounted a legal challenge to the result and alleged that the counting of votes was mishandled. Photo: AFP

Joko Widodo becomes Indonesia’s first person from a non-elite, non-military background to win the presidential election, setting off charges of electoral skulduggery from the elitist section of the opposition.

THE INDONESIAN ELECTION COMMISSION officially announced on July 22 that the winner of the final round of the presidential election held on July 9 was Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. The elections were hard fought, with the opposition engaging in dirty tricks in a belated effort to pip Jokowi at the post. The opposition’s propaganda blitz did succeed in whittling down the 20 per cent lead Jokowi initially enjoyed before the campaign began in earnest.

In the final tally released by the Election Commission, Jokowi won 53 per cent of the vote. Jokowi, who grew up in a slum in the city of Surakarta in central Java province, started life as a carpenter and went on to become a furniture exporter. He won national fame as the Governor of Jakarta, a post to which he was elected in 2012. He had earlier served two terms as Mayor of Surakarta. The capital, Jakarta, which had a reputation of being ungovernable, made a turnaround under Jokowi. Very soon, he became the most popular politician in all of Indonesia.

The decks have now been cleared for Jokowi to take over the leadership of the world’s fourth most populous nation. Exit polls had predicted weeks before that Jokowi had a comfortable lead over his rival, the retired army general and businessman Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo ended up with 47 per cent of the vote. Nearly 135 million Indonesians had cast their votes in the election, with Jokowi winning by a margin of more than eight million votes. Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Gen. Suharto, without producing any substantial evidence, has alleged electoral skulduggery and has refused to concede defeat.

Prabowo has had a controversial past. His military career was dogged by accusations of human rights violations and corruption. He has been held responsible by human rights groups for the killings and disappearances of more than a thousand people during his stint as commander of Indonesian Special Forces in East Timor and in the days preceding the ouster of Suharto. The military was deployed to quell massive pro-democracy protests in the late 1990s against the authoritarian and corrupt rule of Suharto. The charges against Prabowo have been taken seriously in Washington and other capitals. In fact, United States’ Ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Blake, during the last days of the election campaign, asked for a probe into the allegations that Prabowo had a role in the abductions and torture of students in the dying days of the Suharto regime. Prabowo, like some other leaders from the developing world, has been denied visas to Western capitals.

Challenging the verdict

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Prabowo’s camp implausibly claimed victory as soon as the polling was over. Through the auspices of sections of the media controlled by his business allies, there was an effort to mislead public opinion. A day before the Election Commission announced the results, Prabowo dramatically stated that he was withdrawing from the contest. His close advisers later clarified that the result of the presidential election would only be challenged in the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, which has the authority to order a recount or a fresh election. However, it is unlikely that the court will intervene and overturn the mandate of the people. Although the Chief Justice of the court was recently removed for corrupt practices, Indonesia’s highest court, unlike its counterpart in Thailand, is not totally under the thumb of the country’s military and business elite. Since 2004, the court has rejected all appeals against decisions made by the Election Commission.

The outgoing President, Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono, urged Prabowo to accept defeat gracefully. In the tense days before the election results were announced, the President called on both sides to exercise restraint and keep their supporters off the streets. Golkar, the party set up during Suharto’s years in power and which continues to be an important player in Indonesian politics, also asked Prabowo to accept the results. Golkar had extended support to Prabowo’s candidacy but there were indications that it would change course and back Jokowi in Parliament, where he lacked a majority.

Prabowo’s chief adviser, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who is his brother and one of the country’s leading businessmen, said they were only seeking additional time from the highest court to investigate “serious problems” in vote tabulation and voting patterns. Significant sections of the country’s business elite have evidently not reconciled with the fact that a man who built his reputation solely on the planks of good governance and anti-corruption has won the nation’s top post.

Jokowi, who will be the seventh President of the country, is the first to emerge from a non-elite or non-military background. Among his political role models is President Sukarno, the man who led Indonesia to independence and the architect of the Pancasila (five principles) doctrine. The principles, which include the concept of social justice for all, are supposed to be a guide to politics in the country. Sukarno’s daughter, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDP-I), were the main backers of Jokowi’s candidacy.

Highly charged campaign

During the election campaign, the opposition even went to the extent of alleging that Jokowi was secretly a “practicing Christian” and that his father was an Indonesian of “Chinese” origin. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. The Islamic parties had done quite well in the parliamentary election that had preceded the presidential election. Prabowo was backed by the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line group that has carried out attacks against minorities, bars and nightclubs. The Chinese minority is viewed with suspicion by many Indonesians, mainly owing to its predominance in business.

There was a whispering campaign that Jokowi was a closet communist. The Communist Party of Indonesia, which was the biggest in Indonesia before the bloody purge in 1965, continues to be proscribed in the country. Next year, 2015, will mark the 50th anniversary of the military coup which brought Suharto to power and claimed the lives of at least 500,000 Indonesians. Until the early 1990s, anybody remotely suspected of having communist sympathies was either incarcerated in remote island prisons or subjected to social boycott. While applying for jobs, ordinary Indonesians had to give an undertaking that they were neither related to nor socially connected with people having left-wing sympathies.

Prabowo employed a highly charged nationalistic rhetoric on the campaign trail. He proved to be a more accomplished speaker and debater than his main rival. Coming from a wealthy background, he had the benefit of being educated in elite institutions. Speaking in a televised debate that featured both candidates, Prabowo alleged that the nation’s wealth was controlled by foreigners. Sections of the Indonesian elite and some populist parties are not happy that much of the profits from the country’s vast mineral riches and forests end up in the coffers of Western multinationals. Prabowo won most of his votes from the densely populated regions of West Java and West Sumatra. Jokowi’s votes came mainly from Jakarta, East Java and the eastern parts of Indonesia.

The challenges

Jokowi, speaking to the media after the official announcement of the results, said it was a turning point for politics in the country. He said the results signified a break with the past and added that the transition from elite-dominated politics was because of the introduction of direct elections from the local government level to the presidency. The centralised style of leadership that was inherited from the military-dominated Suharto era is now hopefully a thing of the past.

Jokowi, who will formally assume the presidency in October, will have the onerous task of steering one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. It is the world’s 16th largest economy and the biggest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping. However, nearly 30 million Indonesians continue to live in poverty, surviving on less than $1.50 a day. On the campaign trail, Jokowi promised to focus on improving the infrastructure of the sprawling archipelago by constructing 10 new seaports and expanding the road network.

A Jokowi presidency could witness more transparency in government dealings but the new administration will not be veering too much from the neoliberal path that previous governments have taken. Jokowi, in a recent interview, vowed to “fast-track” foreign direct investment proposals, especially in the country’s lucrative mining sector. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of nickel ore and one of the biggest producers of copper, iron ore and bauxite. President Yudhoyono had imposed an export ban on unprocessed ore in January. The government demanded that the Western companies involved in mining set up processing plants within Indonesia. Two U.S. companies—Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc. and Newmont Mining Corporation—account for 97 per cent of Indonesia’s copper production. Western governments are hoping that Jokowi will overturn the ban on exports. Jokowi said he would sit down with all the stakeholders to find a solution at the earliest.

There is also pressure on the president-elect from international finance capital to lift subsidies for the poor, especially on fuel. Fuel subsidy consumes a fifth of the country’s budget. Previous attempts to cut the subsidy were met with widespread street protests. The World Bank, in a recent report, stated that the growth outlook for the country would be sluggish if structural reforms were not carried out immediately. These include cuts in the fuel subsidy and more infrastructure investments. Jokowi, the hero of the common man, will have some tough decisions to make when he takes over the presidency in October. Some of the decisions could have an adverse impact on the poorest sections of Indonesian society.

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