By Krithika Varagur
April 17, 2019
Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia’s president
since 2014, and most likely until 2024, had every reason to gloat on Wednesday
afternoon. By 3 p.m., after quick-count polls from around 160 million voters
had been processed, he had nearly a 10 percent lead over his opponent, the former
general Prabowo Subianto. But he passed up the chance to call a quick victory.
Emerging to a cheering crowd of thousands at the Djakarta Theatre, wearing a
simple white shirt, he told everyone to be patient and wait for official
results from the General Elections Commission, which could take several more
It was a perfect distillation of the
confident, positive tone of his re-election campaign this year, against the
exact same rival he faced in his first victory in 2014. Jokowi is Indonesia’s
first president without an elite or military background, and he made his name
on technocratic improvements, economic development, and incremental
progress—apparently a winning formula.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Prabowo, who looks
likely to have now lost his third straight federal election, immediately
contested the results and claimed voter fraud.
“Jokowi was an easygoing but upbeat
campaigner, appealing to Indonesians’ sense of optimism in a country where
annual GDP growth is above 5 percent and 40 percent of the population are under
25,” said Aaron Connelly a research fellow focusing on Southeast Asia at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies. . “He drew an explicit contrast
with Prabowo’s pessimism,” which railed against foreign investment in Indonesian
resources and much more. “In the end, optimism won out.”
But despite his technocratic approach,
Jokowi made some considerable concessions to religious conservatives as part of
his course to a likely re-election. For his running mate, he chose Maruf Amin,
the country’s top Muslim cleric, whose history of intolerance includes attacks
on Shiites, Ahmadiyya Muslims, LGBTQ people, and more. Jokowi’s surprise pick
of Maruf last year was widely seen as bending the knee to religious voters in
the world’s largest Muslim-majority country after they showed their strength in
numbers in 2017, when hard-line Islamist protests unseated Jakarta’s Christian
governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for accused blasphemy against Islam.
In the post-Ahok political climate, Jokowi could take no chances. In his first
campaign, he was accused of not being a real Muslim and smeared as a
The choice of Maruf shows how quickly
Islamic credentials have become central to authority and credibility in
Indonesian politics since the Ahok affair.The choice of Maruf shows how quickly
Islamic credentials have become central to authority and credibility in
Indonesian politics since the Ahok affair. Indonesia was never a secular
nation—its constitution specifically protects six faiths, and atheism is
illegal—but neither was religious sectarianism very important to national
politics. Religious difference was suppressed under the military dictatorship
of Suharto from 1967 through 1998, seen as a danger to social harmony and a source
of potential dissent. After Suharto’s fall, there was a grassroots resurgence
of religiosity in the public sphere that exploded into public consciousness in
“You can draw a line from the anti-Ahok
rallies to the nomination of Maruf Amin in 2018,” said Andreas Harsono, a
senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. “Jokowi needed not just
Muslim credentials, but Islamist credentials,” he said, distinguishing between
the religion and its specifically political applications.
The two made an odd pair on the campaign
trail, a metalhead and former furniture salesman paired with a 76-year-old
cleric. Last weekend, Jokowi held an enormous campaign rally in South Jakarta
that was more like a rock concert, which concluded with a stadium-wide mass prayer
led by Maruf.
Prabowo is a former army general who was
active in the last years of the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste; he is
banned from the U.S. for alleged human rights violations during his time there.
He also married into the military elite; his former wife is Suharto’s daughter.
Despite having a Christian mother and not being known for his piety, Prabowo
actively courted Islamist support too. He signed a pact of demands from the
Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line Islamist group that organized mass rallies
in Jakarta in 2016 and calls for, among other things, greater application of
sharia. He shouted “Allahu akbar!”—“God is great!”—at rallies and held a mass
dawn prayer in the same stadium where Jokowi had his concert.
Just three days before the election, both
Jokowi and Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga Uno literally went to Mecca on umrah
(the minor Muslim pilgrimage), to broadcast their piety. This underscores the
overarching similarities of the tickets: Both were somewhat Islamist, and both
were lukewarm on human rights.
It remains to be seen how Maruf’s presence
at the highest levels of Indonesian government will affect Jokowi’s second
term. But both tickets’ accommodation of Islamism is in step with global trends
in Muslim-majority countries, where democracy has not dovetailed with
secularism, as the Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid argued in his book
Islamic Exceptionalism. Many other Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt and
Turkey, have structural similarities with Indonesia, with mid- or
late-20th-century periods of secular authoritarianism that eventually yielded
to populist currents of long-repressed Muslim religiosity. In all these places,
Islamism has a seat at the table.
And that’s a democratic outcome. “Some of
the developments in Indonesia are bad and troubling, but they are, in many
respects, products of its democracy, rather than contrary to it,” Hamid said.
“Democracy means reflecting popular sentiment, and popular sentiment in
Indonesia is generally supportive of Islam playing a larger role in public
life, for both better and worse. … Democratization and Islamization often go
hand in hand.” He puts the rise of identity politics in Indonesia as part of a
larger geopolitical trend in which “democratic competition becomes less
policy-oriented and technocratic and becomes more preoccupied with questions of
identity, culture, and religion”—a good summary of the shift between the tone
of Jokowi’s first and second presidential candidacies.
Jokowi’s gambit seems to have worked, as
there were plenty of anti-Ahok protesters at his stadium campaign rally. “Maruf
Amin brings spirit to the ticket,” said Boy Paku, 35, a private sector worker
who attended the 2017 Islamist rallies and voted for Jokowi. “As you know,
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, and having Amin reflects the
spirit of the umma,” or Muslim community.
Jokowi has a strong mandate for his second
term, given his comfortable margin and the fact that he cannot run for
re-election under Indonesian term limits, and many see this as an imperative to
act more strongly on his lukewarm human rights record. Despite riding a
progressive wave in 2014, Jokowi made very little progress on creating
accountability for the 1965 massacre or in stopping the precipitous decline in
LGBT rights since 2016. Religious intolerance also rose steeply during his
term, per the Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank, and indigenous
people continue to face huge neglect.
“Whoever wins this election, they must have
an obligation to resolve all the human rights violations of the past as well as
recent ones,” said Lini Zurlia, a prominent queer activist in Jakarta. If it’s
Jokowi, she said, “he must especially resolve what he already promised to all
of us in the first term,” such as opening a tribunal on the 1965 massacre.
“This is his chance. But if not, well … he is just a politician, and he is not
a good leader for this country.”
Zurlia was also the face of a voter
abstention movement dubbed “golput,” short for a phrase meaning “white group,”
people who don’t choose either presidential candidate on the ballot. It was a
position endorsed by many activists and young Indonesians in the face of what
they considered to be two bad options. Jokowi was reportedly quite worried, but
voter turnout was actually high this year, over 80 percent—up from around 70
percent in 2014, although golput is sometimes exercised by turning out, but
then spoiling ballots.
“I think there were at least two factors
behind this,” said Philips Vermonte, the lead researcher at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “This was the first year in
which there were simultaneous elections for both the legislative branches and
president, so there was a very long campaign season, over six months. I think
this really let the message sink in to voters.” Also, he said, this election
day fell shortly before the Easter holiday, which includes a federal holiday on
Friday, “So that may also have encouraged people to stay in town and vote.”
The elections were combined this year for
logistical ease, Vermonte said. Indonesia has the world’s largest one-day
direct election, involving 800,000 polling stations this year and over 5
million Election Day volunteers. It was a remarkably efficient enterprise, with
each polling station capped at 300 voters, each of whom voted for four or five
different offices at once. Polls opened at 8 a.m., and a quick count was
available in seven hours.
The combination of legislative and
presidential elections also encouraged the early formation of coalitions this
year, per Vermonte. Typically, coalitions have been formed only after the
presidential election. In the future, this coalition-building may have the
effect of creating distinct policy positions for each candidate, in a departure
from the personality-based politics of Indonesia’s crowded multiparty system.
In a region that has been fertile with
strongmen, Indonesia, the largest democracy and country in Southeast Asia,
seems like a proof of concept for a resilient democracy, just 21 years after
its democratic revolution.
“In Indonesia, they used to call it
democracy, but it was authoritarian,” said Ari Sambur, a 65-year-old retiree in
Kalibata, South Jakarta. “They would change your vote! The ballots didn’t
matter. Now it’s real democracy,” he said. He grew up in North Sulawesi, where
Prabowo’s mother is from.
“And now we can choose the president
directly,” added his friend, Isman Ahmad Chuaini, who grew up in Jakarta.
“Before we used to elect only the legislators.” Having lived through
post-colonial “Guided Democracy,” a military dictatorship, and the democratic
reform of 1988, they both agree that being an Indonesian voter has never been
“This year’s campaign was more vicious,”
said Chuaini, even though the contenders were the same. “But that’s part of
democracy too. We must defend it.”