Election dispute emerges as serious test for Indonesia

By Ben Bland in Jakarta
Financial Times
July 14, 2014

After 16 years of peaceful democracy, the dispute over who won Indonesia’s presidential election is turning into a serious test for both the country and outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose legacy will depend on how he handles the clash.

Both Joko Widodo, the reformist Jakarta governor, and Prabowo Subianto, a self-styled military strongman, have claimed victory in the July 9 election, although most polling agencies and independent political analysts suggest Mr Widodo has won.

The official vote count will not be completed until July 22, but both sides have already accused each other of trying to rig the process. If neither side accepts the outcome of the official count, it will be left to the national election commission (KPU), the Constitutional Court and President Yudhoyono to find a solution.

“Without question, the vote-count will be the major test for Indonesia’s democracy and, in particular, President Yudhoyono’s presidency,” says Tom Lembong, managing partner of Quvat, an Indonesia-focused private equity fund manager. “People only remember the beginning and the end.”

However, the president, the KPU and Constitutional Court all have their weaknesses in mediating the outcome of an election that has divided the nation, with media outlets, religious groups and senior politicians all backing one of the two candidates.

Trust in the Constitutional Court, which must rule on any disputes related to the official count within one month, is low after its last chief justice was convicted of corruption for selling verdicts in local election disputes.

The KPU has a reputation for competency at a national level but has minimal control over its 4m local staff and its commissioners are little-known bureaucrats rather than political heavyweights. So it faces a battle to resist attempts at manipulating the count.

The president has powers over the KPU, police and military and many analysts believe he has the moral authority to prevent the election dispute spiralling into violence.

Mr Yudhoyono, who is stepping down after reaching the two-term limit, has been widely praised for helping to consolidate Indonesia’s democratic transition. But his independence has been called into question because of the open support for Mr Subianto from his Democrat party, his son and many senior members of his cabinet.

He has tried to dispel this concern, telling Husni Kamil Manik, the chairman of the KPU, on Friday that he was “personally not on any side in this presidential election”. Mr Yudhoyono asked Mr Manik to ensure the complex counting process proceeds in an “accountable and transparent” manner, and added that if either side refuses to accept the official results, the political situation would reach “boiling point”.

This election re-engaged many Indonesians who were disillusioned with the country’s corrupt and elite-dominated politics, with Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto offering competing visions of change and tough leadership.

But this election has also revealed weaknesses in Indonesia’s nascent democratic system, 16 years after the fall of long-ruling autocrat Suharto, whose daughter was married to Mr Subianto.

Quick counts, which are based on a sample of votes cast, were introduced in previous elections as a reliable check on the outcome of the official count, amid low trust in the system and th KPU.

But this time, while most quick counts by established polling agencies showed Mr Widodo winning by a margin of 4-7 percentage points, a handful of counts promoted by organisations linked to Mr Subianto showed him in the lead. That has cast doubt on the outcome of the counting process.

With most international organisations happy with the progress of democracy in Indonesia, and the government keen to show it can stand on its own feet, there was no funding for independent election monitors.

Paul Rowland, an election expert in Jakarta, said that international donors to Indonesia had not expected such a dispute over the poll and had underestimated the cost of a potential failure in a country that had become a “beacon of democracy” in the region.

“If Mr Widodo is not declared the ultimate winner, as the trusted quick counts show, my fear is that there could be mass demonstrations and there’s the potential for an Egypt scenario,” he said, referring to the unrest in that country.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a politics lecturer at the Indonesian defence university, says he does not know any “non-partisan analysts” who believe that Mr Subianto won but warns that both camps will find it hard to accept defeat.

With Indonesia on edge, Mr Sulaiman hopes that President Yudhoyono will be a “balancing influence”.

“It would be a major stain on his legacy if something bad happens in the election,” he says.

  1. #1 by winstony on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 - 9:11 am

    Indonesia has come a very long way.
    To the extent that the an ethnic Chinese can be a candidate for the presidency of the country!!
    This is a great achievement for a country that has always used the minority races, especially the Chinese for bashing.
    This put to shame our country where ethnicity still reigns as far as the top job in the country is concerned instead of having the best and most meritorious candidate for the post.
    One quite surprising thing is that in spite of the potential for manipulation of the votes, no reputable international election officials were put in place.
    Based on hindsight, this is a very serious lapse of judgement.
    In the recent disputed election in Afghanistan all the ballots were to be subjected to audit.
    Perhaps Indonesia could do the same to come to a fair and just conclusion.

  2. #2 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 16 July 2014 - 6:42 am

    We can only hope that sanity and honesty prevail over emotion! Without doubt, the Indonesian society seemed to have changed for the better but this test will decide if those changes will continue or just reverse it back a couple of steps in its progress! We can only hope rationality prevail among the majority of the Indonesian people! Otherwise AEC will never be achieved even by 2025 as an expert on this subject had recently projected! In fact, this may even just stopped AEC as a still-born!

You must be logged in to post a comment.