Later today the Indonesian Electoral Commission will officially declare the result of the 9 July presidential election. But we know what it will say: that Joko Widodo, candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle and former governor of Jakarta, has scored a clear victory over his rival, Prabowo Subianto.
The Jakarta Globe’s compilation of results shows Joko with 53.2% of the vote to Prabowo’s 46.8%. (Turnout is put at 70.6%.) That’s completely consistent with the various sample estimates and provisional results that have emerged over the last fortnight.
It’s no landslide, and it’s certainly closer than it looked like being a few months ago, but it’s still not particularly close. It’s about the same, for example, as the margin by which Nicolas Sarkozy beat Ségolène Royal for the French presidency in 2007, and no-one thought that was less than decisive.
What’s more, absolute numbers matter as well, and Indonesia is a much bigger country than France. Joko’s margin amounts to more than eight million votes. If we’re contending for the presidency of the local drama group and I’ve got 53 votes to your 47, it’s worth asking for a recount; three ballot papers might have been misplaced. But if you’re expecting to find a problem with four million ballot papers you’re going to be disappointed.
The only reason the Indonesian election looks in any way close or indecisive is due to the tactics of the losing candidate, Prabowo, who has persistently refused to concede defeat or to acknowledge the legitimacy of the result. Faced with a lack of agreement, most of the western media have taken the easy track of simply reporting the different views, rather than clearly pointing out that one represents fact and the other just bluster.
Fairfax’s Michael Bachelard, in an excellent summary of the situation yesterday, points out that “It was clear from credible ‘quick counts’ of the election result just two hours after the polls closed that [Prabowo] had lost,” but that’s not how his newspapers headlined it at the time.
So although Prabowo is most unlikely to succeed in having the result overturned in any way, he has already had a major success: he has deprived his rival of the immediate credit for his victory. By the time of today’s announcement it will already be seen as old news, and all that will remain in the minds of most readers is a vague lingering doubt about the legitimacy of the result – and therefore, potentially, of Joko’s presidency.
I think of this as the Maxine McKew syndrome, recalling the 2007 election in Australia when the media succeeded in muddying the water over John Howard’s defeat by McKew in his seat of Bennelong. Although the result was clear on the night, reporters (or editors) were evidently afraid of writing off a sitting prime minister and therefore refrained from calling it until well after most people had moved on to other things.
McKew went on to lose the seat three years later, as probably would have happened anyway. Indonesia’s new president has to hope that’s not a precedent for him.
*UPDATE* Wednesday afternoon
We now have the official figures, which show Joko winning by about 8.42 million votes: pretty much exactly what the Jakarta Globe said. The media still give the impression that this is something that’s been in doubt for the last fortnight, but they are at least pointing out that the margin is large enough to render Prabowo’s claims of irregularities pretty much irrelevant. Michael Bachelard is again the best of the bunch.
Joko is due to be sworn in on 20 October.