Prabowo Subianto supporters protest outside of the Elections Supervisory Agency’s office in Central Jakarta, on May 21 a few hours before rioting erupted across the Indonesian capital. (Photo by Konradus Epa/ucanews.com)
It had been clear for weeks that some form of insurrection was looming as Indonesian presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto refused to accept that he’d been defeated in the April 17 presidential election.
As the official announcement approached, his insistence and that of his close supporters that he’d been robbed of victory by massive cheating stoked anger among the hard-line Muslims who had piggy-backed on the attempt of the former special forces general to take control of the country.
When the General Election Commission (KPU) tried to forestall the planned protests by announcing the victory of incumbent President Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin the day before initially scheduled, and in the middle of the night, there were hopes that an angry reaction could be avoided.
Images of a few hundred forlorn protesters making their point through prayer surrounded by a sea of riot police told the story of the first hours after the decision early on May 21. But then, said police, the nature of the crowd changed. The quiet protesters went home, to be replaced by angry young men who immediately started to cause trouble, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Trouble continued for some 36 hours across a wide swathe of central Jakarta. A police barracks was burned down and the mob raged across the city, trashing cars and other property in a mad riot of protest. Slowly but steadily the police, backed by the army and with a total of some 60,000 personnel at their disposal, restored order, arresting more than 250.
Whoever planned the fiery protest — and there was evidence to demonstrate that the rioters had been paid to do their work — failed to allow for the fact that the authorities had also been aware well ahead of time that trouble was brewing.
Reinforcements had been brought into the capital from across the country and police in the regions stopped busloads of would-be demonstrators from traveling to Jakarta. A protective cordon was thrown up to the east of the capital to stop protesters. When demonstrators arrived at the KPU and the Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu), they were faced with walls of razor wire and lines of police in full riot gear.
It appears that the plan had been to recreate the events of 1998, when protests over the collapse of the economy and the failure of the 32-year rule of President Suharto morphed into three days of rioting.
Then, the rioting was sparked by the killing of four students by police from a flyover across from their campus in West Jakarta. This time, an attempt to smuggle an unlicensed sniper rifle and silencer into the country was foiled, and a retired general arrested.
In the weeks before the KPU announcement, the police also rounded up dozens of terrorist suspects, some of whom they accused of planning to explode devices in the midst of the crowd of protesters. Outrage over the killings, it was planned, would spark nationwide protests and chaos that could justify the ousting of the president.
Hoaxes spread rapidly alleging that Chinese police had joined the ranks opposing the demonstrators, feeding on the widespread belief that Widodo is too close to Beijing. Other messages claimed protesters had been shot and killed while taking refuge in mosques. The authorities closed down social media for three days.
One version of what happened has it that the money that was supposed to pay the thugs enlisted for the task failed to turn up, meaning the numbers confronting the police were too few. The coming weeks are likely to see what role was played in this, if any, by Subianto and his allies amongst the community of retired police and military officers.
In the meantime, he is challenging the election result in the Constitutional Court, but his claims of massive and structural cheating are seen as unlikely to receive much of a hearing, given that Widodo won 16 million more votes than he did.
That will allow Widodo and running mate, senior Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, to finally be declared the winners and prepare to take over the running of the country next October.
The outcome of the election, and the failure of the protest movement, left a small proportion angry and frustrated. Having been convinced by the rhetoric of Subianto and his allies that right was on their side and victory within their grasp, they now have to live with the bile created when they were pushed aside.
Thirteen provinces sided strongly with Subianto and his running mate, businessman and former Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno. In West Sumatra, the pair gained 2,268,693 votes, against only 362,460 for Widodo and Amin. The provinces that backed Subianto and Uno are known for their strong association with conservative Islam, often strongly influenced by the austere Wahhabi creed.
Widodo and Amin were successful in populous Central and East Java, both known for their preference for the more tolerant brand of Islam promoted by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization, the country’s largest Muslim grouping. They also won strong backing in non-Muslim regions.
Both the NU and Muhammadiyah, the second largest religious organization, told their followers not to join the protests against the election result, lining up once again on the side of those who support secular Indonesia’s Pancasila ideology.
The failure of the push to propel Subianto to the presidency is the latest in a long line of moves in which secular forces have triumphed. Since independence, pressure to acknowledge Islam as the majority religion of the state has been brushed aside. A series of elections dating back to the country’s first experiment in democracy, in 1955, have seen Islamic parties trounced at the polls.
Inevitably, rancor has accumulated from generation to generation. Almost remarkably, most adherents to the Islamic view of how Indonesia should be governed have remained largely peaceful, but this latest exercise could push more critics into the arms of the terrorist community. Widodo and Amin will have their work cut out to find some way to achieve reconciliation.
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.