Election preview: Indonesia (the big one)

Indonesia votes today in its presidential election. It’s a straight two-person race and a single nationwide ballot, so there’s not much psephological complexity – the one who gets the most votes wins. Official results are not expected for a week or two, but exit polls and sample counts should be available sometime this evening.

On all accounts it’s a close contest between Joko Widodo, formerly governor of Jakarta, and Prabowo Subianto, former son-in-law of the late dictator General Suharto. There’s no dispute that Prabowo has run a better campaign: what started out as a substantial lead for Joko has narrowed to the point where many have tipped Prabowo as a likely winner, although Joko retains a slight advantage in the polls. He is also said to have performed well in the final candidates’ debate.

The most recent Morgan poll gives Joko a four point lead, 52% to 48%, but it should be remembered that the polls substantially overstated his party’s vote prior to April’s legislative election.

For once there has been plenty of coverage in the Australian media. Fairfax’s reports have been quite extensive; see Michael Bachelard yesterday and John Garnaut today. There have also been some good BBC stories, such as this rather scary one from Monday on the cult of Suharto.

As sometimes happens (remember the last US presidential election), even though Indonesians are fairly evenly divided, international opinion is much more nearly unanimous. Some of Indonesia’s neighbors may prefer a Prabowo presidency as more likely to be committed to a strong ASEAN and more likely to stand up to China in regional disputes, but otherwise – and especially among commentators in Australia – sentiment runs overwhelmingly in favor of Joko.

Broadly speaking, Joko is the candidate of reform and democracy, whereas Prabowo is the candidate of the old order. He also has a human rights record that evidently includes kidnapping, torture and murder; perhaps the past in Indonesia is still sufficiently close that voters will interpret that as a negative. (In a way that they seem not to in Australia.)

Of course, things are never quite as simple as they seem. Joko is also backed by the dynastic forces of the Sukarno family and by General Wiranto, one of the worst offenders from the old regime. Prabowo is supported not only by Suharto’s Golkar but also by the Democratic Party of current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Yudhoyono’s son is married to the daughter of Prabowo’s running mate).

Still, there’s no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom that Prabowo would be a threat to Indonesia’s young democracy in a way that Joko would not. Specifically, Prabowo has made clear his support for the abolition of direct elections to the presidency, and while you can gloss that (as he now does) as just a move to more of a Westminster system, academics Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner are probably closer to the mark when they describe it as a “threat … toward Indonesia’s democratic architecture.”

As Damien Kingsbury put it yesterday, “It is disturbing that there remains such a political throwback to Indonesia’s darker past. But it is perhaps more disturbing that close to, or possibly slightly more than, half of Indonesia’s voters are expected to support him.”

Commentators make the further assumption that the Australian government would also be less than happy with a Prabowo victory, but I’m not so sure about that. Successive Australian governments enjoyed a warm relationship with Suharto, despite the vast quantities of blood on his hands, and were conspicuously slow to embrace the move away from dictatorship. Sad to say, that’s on a par with our general attitude to democracy in the region.

If Prabowo should win, he may well face pragmatic problems in the relationship with Australia, but he’s unlikely to encounter any principled opposition to authoritarianism.

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