Last Wednesday, Indonesians cast ballots to elect their seventh president. The choice: a small-town furniture salesman who stepped down as Jakarta’s reformist governor, or a well-heeled former general who harked back to an autocratic past. The race ended tight, but the most credible evidence points to a victory for the former governor. It is a testament to the maturity of voters in the world’s third-largest democracy that they resisted cheap nationalist rhetoric to safeguard their democratic rights.
The same maturity was not immediately on display among the political elite. On the basis of an early sampling of results that, in past elections, has proved accurate, Joko Widodo, the former governor, has declared victory; but the military man, Prabowo Subianto, is refusing to concede. The national electoral commission does not have to release official results until July 22. So what happens between now and then will further test the nation’s commitment to democracy.
The fear is that the apparent loser, Mr. Prabowo, could try to use conflicting results, from less reputable polling organizations, to sow statistical confusion as a prelude to manipulating the final outcome. He would do so at his peril.
During his campaign, Mr. Prabowo said he would like to review many of the country’s recent democratic reforms. But now, it seems likely that a majority of voters have chosen his opponent. That alone suggests that Indonesians will defend their democracy. It would be very difficult to steal an election in this climate; any effort to do so would surely lead to huge public protests.
Indeed, Indonesia’s 250 million people have embraced democracy more rapidly and successfully than seemed possible just a decade and a half ago, when they threw off the 32-year autocracy of President Suharto.
Suharto had held Indonesia’s thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups together with two uniformed armies, one military and the other an army of bureaucrats controlled from Jakarta, the capital. But when the aging general, battered by the Asian financial crisis, fell from power in 1998, he left the country in a precarious situation. Almost everyone was disgruntled, not least the bulk of the military, many of the Muslim-majority nation’s religious leaders, and inhabitants of the regions richest in natural resources. Their various stabs at securing power led to conflict and bloodshed in many parts of Indonesia in the first years of this century.
Over time, however, Indonesians’ talent for reaching amorphous compromises won out. Voters pushed different interest groups into sometimes unlikely coalitions; the country’s deeply transactional political system wove a fabric in which the military had to answer to civilian power. Radical Muslim groups came to depend on cooperation with secular parties, and regions were tied to Jakarta through funding streams.
At the same time, post-Suharto governance was decentralized across more than 500 districts, each with an elected head, its own parliament and set of ministries. The system is chaotic, inefficient, expensive — and wildly popular, especially outside Java, the main island.
Today, voters love to grumble that their local leaders behave like minor kings, doling out jobs and contracts to family and friends. But they also know they can use their votes to demand services and, if they don’t get them, they can throw their leaders out. To Indonesians accustomed to being governed from afar, first by the Dutch and then by a largely Javanese bureaucracy, this accountability is new, and very precious.
It is through this decentralized system that Mr. Joko rose as an efficient mayor of the small central Java city of Solo, captured a second term with 90 percent of the vote, and went on to be elected Jakarta’s governor in 2012. And it is this decentralized system that Mr. Prabowo would like to dismantle.
A military man born into one of Indonesia’s grander families, and formerly married to one of Suharto’s daughters, Mr. Prabowo sees the world as a chain of command; his presidential campaign revolved around his own capacity to lead Indonesia with a firm hand.
In recent years I have heard many rural Indonesians — men more than women — talk of the need for an “iron fist” in Jakarta. After a reflective chat, however, they often conclude that the freedoms they enjoy now — a combative press, the ability to negotiate wages, the power to change leaders — are more valuable than the military-backed “stability” that Suharto imposed and that Mr. Prabowo nostalgically recalls.
Mr. Joko is anything but an “iron fist.” His campaign was understated and chaotic, not least because he kept stopping to listen to people. Mr. Prabowo’s campaign, on the other hand, was slick, disciplined and full of grandiose posturing.
While railing against the disproportionate power of American corporations, Mr. Prabowo hired the American campaign consultant Rob Allyn, a Texas Republican who in 2000 worked on a campaign that discredited John McCain as a primary candidate. Soon afterward, he supplemented his campaign trail theatrics with a smear that miscast Mr. Joko, a Javanese Muslim, as an ethnic Chinese Christian. That tactic clearly played a role in reducing Mr. Joko’s early polling lead to a gossamer-thin margin by the day of the election. But that margin should be enough to redeem Indonesia’s democracy.
Mr. Joko, after all, lives much closer to the ground upon which the majority of Indonesians tread than his rival does. He knows that patient reform of the country’s sclerotic and unresponsive bureaucracy will change lives in a way that bellicose anti-imperialist grandstanding will not; as mayor and governor, he delivered such reforms, with visible results. Mr. Joko did not respond to Mr. Prabowo’s smear campaign, nor make much of his opponent’s questionable human rights record as a general. He seemed always to have had faith that Indonesians would vote to defend their democratic freedom, and would resist a return to autocracy.
His faith currently seems well placed, but he has one more hurdle to pass: to ensure that the apparent election results stand. The rest of the world should make it clear that other countries are ready to forgo doing business as usual with anyone who would subvert Indonesia’s democratic process.
Elizabeth Pisani is the author of Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.