DUNCAN GRAHAM Why didn’t Widodo do better?

May 2, 2019

Slowly, carefully, nervously, Indonesia is retreating from the threat of a bloody revolution following the 17 April election.

The danger has been real as senior supporters of the megalomaniacal presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto called for the result to be challenged through ‘people power’.

This is a euphemism for rioting. The last time it happened on any scale was in 1998 when more than a thousand died in Jakarta after second president Soeharto abdicated. Shops and offices were torched and ethnic minorities targeted. Sectarian violence flared in eastern islands.

The official figures of this year’s election won’t be known till 22 May but ‘quick count’ results from separate reputable agencies show Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo with a ten-point lead and heading for his second, and final, five-year term.

Widodo is a commoner, the first to win the nation’s top job traditionally held by a member of the military, business and religious elite. Some in the oligarchy find this unacceptable.

Among them is Subianto, the fiery former son-in-law of dictator Soeharto. He’s claiming 62 per cent of the vote and shouting that the poll was marred by corruption and voter manipulation, though offering little evidence.

At one level this is standard loser’s sulks, and the source of many jokes. But in a Republic where demonstrators can be bought by the thousands, the potential for serious strife is ever-present.

So far the police have struck first, banning protests at the 100 hectare Merdeka (Freedom) Square in Central Java and keeping roads clear. Religious leaders have also been urging calm. Heavy rain and massive flooding in Jakarta has also dampened enthusiasm to riot.

Police have reportedly been questioning politician Eggi Sudjana over alleged ‘people power’ threats and hate speech in a video posted on social media. This has encouraged some agitators to tone down.

There were demos last week, but by Indonesian standards these were next to no-shows, suggesting that Subianto, 67, has run out of puff. However some believe he’s using threats of disorder to wring post-poll concessions out of Widodo.

The absence of vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno, 49, at rallies suggests the canny business tycoon has checked the figures and knows the truth. The official explanation for his absence has been ‘hiccups’.

Although Widodo has acknowledged the quick count results he hasn’t been partying. . He’s asked supporters to be patient and wait for official results from the Electoral Commission (KPU).

Booth problems have been reported, unsurprising when maybe 160 million voted – a turn-out of around 80 per cent. This is an extraordinary result in a nation where participation is voluntary; a campaign run to get electors to stay away as a gesture against lack of reforms seems to have been a fizzer.

It was our neighbour’s first simultaneous presidential and legislative election and will probably be the last. Apart from the world’s third largest democracy selecting its leader voters also had to choose local and national legislators.

Doing it all on the same day seemed a good time and cost saving exercise when originally mooted. Instead it became a logistic nightmare with at least 240,000 candidates running for more than 20,000 posts. Punters were unfolding ballot papers which made Australian Senate selection sheets look like A6 notepaper.

There have been reports that more than 100 booth workers and volunteers died during the exercise and 500 fell ill from exhaustion. In 2024 the vote will probably be run across two days.

Subianto’s ‘we wuz robbed’ charges are attributed to the former general’s folie de grandeur. He’s expected to appeal to the Constitutional Court as he did when he lost in 2014.

Social psychologists call this phenomenon ‘pluralistic ignorance’. Their obfuscating definition is: ‘A situation where no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes’. That’s a concept harder to unravel than a One Nation policy.

Who is this Subianto make-believer from a separate universe? ‘He’s a Trumpian figure who lives in a self-created bubble of imagined greatness,’ Dr Marcus Mietzner of the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific told the ABC.

‘Any disturbances to that fantasy world are met with further manipulative additions to his own reality.’

What should be a concern is the low vote for the winner. An election where the incumbent seeks another term is also a referendum on his or her record in office. In all the exuberance (and relief that Subianto had lost) only one observer pointed out that support for Widodo was underwhelming.

Kevin O’Rourke, publisher of the Jakarta newsletter Reformasi Weekly, said that Jokowi’s re-election ‘failed to attain the psychological 60 per cent level that had seemed within reach. Prabowo performed better than expected.’

In the 2009 election another former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won more than 60 per cent of the vote in a three-way contest to seal a second go, though his first period in office was lackluster.

By contrast Widodo’s term has been marked with massive infrastructure projects, the introduction of a health insurance programme, a raft of welfare initiatives to aid the poor and a stable economy.

Why he failed to do better is a puzzle. One explanation is that there’s a residual hankering in society for a return to the good ol’ days of last century. That’s when a tough guy ruled, men with guns enforced their law and most problems could be fixed with cash-stuffed envelopes. Election results were known before voters entered booths.

None of this messy democracy business to disrupt daily life and push folk into making decisions.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.

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