Luke-warm re-election for Indonesia's Widodo

Underwhelming manner of victory leaves president without a convincing mandate to build on reforms in second term
Luke-warm re-election for Indonesia's Widodo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (center right) hold a press conference in Jakarta on April 18. (Photo by Citra Rafina Aqilasah/AFP)

The 2019 presidential and legislative election has passed in Indonesia.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo appears to have won, despite claims by his challenger Prabowo Subianto that he only took votes by cheating. But the result left the president without a convincing mandate to build on during a second term.

If utilizing the benefits of incumbency to the full represents cheating, Widodo is certainly guilty. A range of handouts over the past few months has been aimed at important electoral groups such as honorary public servants.

Such hand-outs together with genuine advances for the poorer half of the electorate in the form of a real social security system including free health care and guaranteed education should have given Widodo a clear majority, but instead he and running mate Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin were running at only around 55 percent of the vote. That figure was not expected to change much, although final results are not out for another month.

While Amin played a minor role in the election, his presence on Widodo’s presidential ticket may have done much to counteract a wave of Muslim sentiment that the president just wasn’t Islamic enough. Formerly the head of the Islamic Ulema Council, Indonesia’s highest Islamic council, Amin’s coming role in government may see it veer in a more conservative direction.

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Widodo himself has veered right over the past few years, adopting an increasingly Muslim persona amid criticism that he wasn’t the real thing. He topped the performance off with a lightning trip to Saudi Arabia for a minor pilgrimage – umroh – immediately after the April 17 election.

As for Subianto and his claims of victory, an initial wave of support dissipated rapidly in the days after the election, leaving the former general looking like a forlorn bad loser.

By the morning of April 22, the General Election Commission’s vote count, with votes from 115,409 out of 813,350 polling stations (TPS) counted — 14.19 percent of the total — Widodo and Amin had 54.93 percent of the vote against 45.07 percent for Subianto and running mate Sandiaga Uno.

Contrarily, Subianto continued to insist that he and Uno had won 62 percent of the vote. The crowds supporting him shrank in direct inversion to the ridicule poured on the claim, particularly by foreign observers, with foreign governments queuing up to applaud the president’s re-election.

To some degree, it is easier to calculate what the election result doesn’t mean rather than what it does. It doesn’t guarantee any increased respect for minorities, or especially for human rights. While Widodo has insisted on the primacy of the state ideology of Pancasila, which protects the major religions, he has done nothing to stem a wave of intolerance toward minority sects, LGBT and other groups.

There won’t be a rush of activity on the part of the private sector to push the economy forward, since Widodo has unfailingly handed out all the plums from his infrastructure drive to the state-owned enterprises. It probably won’t result in a flood of foreign investment, since while Subianto’s nationalist agenda proved unpopular, too many barriers continue under Widodo to create doubts in the mind of investors.

It certainly does not represent a final victory by secular Indonesia against those who want a more Islamic state, a simmering battle that’s been waged on and off since the birth of the republic, if not before. Once more, the percentage of the vote taken by Islamic parties failed to achieve more than 30 percent of the vote.

Somewhat ironically, a Muslim-based party that did well was the National Awakening Party (PKB), which is close to the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Also favored by voters was the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which despite its reputation as the Indonesian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned on bread and butter issues such as banning vehicle taxes.

Indonesian Muslims, according to a number of intellectuals, prefer to keep their religion out of politics. Indeed, some argue that Subianto’s strident wooing of hard-line elements helped convince many voters that he was too dangerous to trust with their votes. The politics of the silent majority prefers a moderate path rather than messianism, they agreed.

Asad Ali Said, a senior figure from NU and former deputy chief of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), in comments to the media played down fears of religious polarization. Using religion for political purposes was quite normal, he said, and the fervor would dissipate rapidly.

For Widodo, the problem now is that the election failed to give him a strong mandate to continue the reform process. With the result looking disturbingly similar to the 2014 election tally, when he was a newcomer to national politics, the largesse of incumbency should in theory have handed him his quest for re-election on a golden platter. The fact that it did not should leave him wondering just what he has to do to please the electorate.

While he will be free to get on with the business of trying to reform the country, the lack of a resounding mandate will tend to make some elements — not least the bureaucracy — less than enthusiastic about jumping to do his bidding. He has promised to devote more attention to boosting the quality of human resources to prepare Indonesia for the post-industrial world, and if he can succeed there, he may find himself respected more in retrospect than he is at the moment.

During the campaign he held out the prospect of an Indonesia that could fulfill the predictions of economic soothsayers and jump to become the world’s fourth most prosperous economy by 2035. Achieving that goal against the odds would defy the pessimists who see major obstacles in the way.

In the meantime it is a long way to the next election in 2024, but people are already talking about possible contestants, not least Subianto’s running mate Sandiaga Uno, who impressed the public with his sensible demeanor alongside his noisome partner. What represents a winning platform appears to be a far harder issue that is yet to be resolved.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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