Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
As one of two of Indonesia’s presidential candidates withdraws from the electoral process in the final hours citing allegations of fraud, the next few days could be critical for the world’s third-largest democracy in terms of population.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto withdrawing from the general election process prior to the general election count announcement in Jakarta 22 July 2014, as his opponent Joko Widodo was poised to be declared the winner. Photo by Bay IsmoyIndonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto withdrawing from the general election process prior to the general election count announcement in Jakarta 22 July 2014, as his opponent Joko Widodo was poised to be declared the winner. Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images.

Just hours before the official announcement by Indonesia’s election commission, one of the two presidential candidates former general Prabowo Subianto, withdrew from the electoral process alleging massive fraud by his opponent the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo. Prabowo made his move despite a last minute plea by the outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyon urging both parties to respect the result. On the eve of the result analysts were predicting a 3-5% lead by Joko Widodo.

The final results, announced at 20:00 Jakarta time (14:00 BST), confirmed this and gave Widodo 53.15% of the vote against 46.85% for Prabowo in the third election since the 1998 overthrow of president Suharto (1966-1998). The election which took place on July 9 will see the new president inaugurated on October 20 for a five-year term.

The two candidates could not be more different and in their own ways represent two trends in Indonesian political leadership, evident since the declaration of independence from the Dutch in 1945. The 53-year-old Joko Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, hails from the central Javanese city of Solo, or Surakarta. From humble origins, he built up a modest furniture business becoming mayor of Solo in 2005. Within a few years the city became one of the best managed in Indonesia with pedestrian walkways, good public transport and parks, and a healthcare system that was the envy of other Indonesian cities. He also became a prominent member of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) which traces its origins back to the founding of the Republic by president Sukarno (1945-1965), the dominant figure in Indonesian politics until his ousting in a military coup. Widodo has a populist style widely seen by many Indonesians as similar to that of the founder of the Republic. In 2012 he moved to the capital Jakarta and was elected as its governor that same year adopting popular policies similar to those he pursued in Solo, especially with regard to healthcare. And although Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country in terms of population, he chose as his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is not only a member of the Chinese minority but also a practising Christian. Indeed with Widodo assuming the presidency, Basuki will automatically become Jakarta governor, a sign of Indonesia’s growing liberalism and religious tolerance.

For many Indonesians, especially of the younger generation and members of the country’s many minorities, Widodo marks a final and decisive break with Indonesia’s authoritarian past which formally came to an end with the ousting of Suharto in 1998. While the most recent President Yudhoyono is widely respected, and was democratically elected, the younger generation of Indonesians feel it is high time the country moved away from military figureheads.

Widodo’s rival for the presidency, Prabowo Subianto, could not be more different. If Widodo can trace his political antecedents to Sukarno, Prabowo can trace his to the general who ousted Sukarno, and later became president Suharto. And to underline that connection not only is Prabowo himself a former general, but he is also married to one of Suharto’s daughters. Joining the army as a young man he rose rapidly through the ranks. Almost all his military career was spent in the Special Forces or Kopassus with lengthy stints in East Timor, then occupied by Indonesia and also in Papua Barat (West New Guinea). In both cases units under his command have been accused of serious human rights violations. In the last days of the Suharto regime in May 1998, Prabowo as head of the Military Strategic Reserve was involved in the kidnapping of democracy activists, for which he was later discharged from the Army.

Thereafter Prabowo lived in exile for several years in Jordan returning to Indonesia in 2008 to found his own party the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). He also enlisted the support of Golkar, the former ruling party under his father in law, Suharto. Prabowo is not a man given to accepting defeat easily and true to form he has already announced that he will appeal to the Constitutional Court to challenge the election results.

Given his past form, he may well encourage his supporters to take to the streets in demonstrations in the coming days to buttress his constitutional appeal. It is critical for Indonesia and democracy in Asia that his attempt to reverse the decision of the electoral commission is not successful.

Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world in terms of population after India and the United States. Within ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) it is one of the most democratic members and often sets a precedent for other members. Myanmar, or Burma, is undergoing its own slow transition from military government to civilian democracy, while neighbouring Thailand has recently experienced a coup d’etat pointing in the other direction. The coming days could well be critical for Indonesia and the region.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback