Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation, went to the polls last week to elect a new President. The choice places the country at a crossroads. It is only the third direct presidential election since Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, but it is without doubt the most critical.
Indonesians faced a clear choice between a candidate who represents the future and one who is a throwback to the past, between strengthening democracy and returning to authoritarianism.
The Governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), was born into a poor family, began life as a furniture salesman and first rose to prominence as Mayor of the city of Solo. He is the first presidential candidate who has no connections with the political, military or business elite, has a clean record on corruption and human rights, and is known to champion democracy and religious pluralism.
Prabowo Subianto, on the other hand, is an ex-General who commanded Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces, stands accused of kidnapping activists and overseeing massacres, has expressed an appreciation of fascism, produced a campaign video with Nazi memorabilia, and is the son-in-law of Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto. Moreover, he has built a coalition of hardline Islamist parties, produced a manifesto with a pledge to “purify” religion and has links with the vigilante Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) which is responsible for attacks on religious minorities and the closure of their places of worship across the archipelago. He has declared his own dislike for direct elections, claiming they are un-Indonesian and comparing democracy to bad habits such as smoking which people should give up.
The choice is therefore stark – between a humble, uncorrupted man who would defend democracy, protect pluralism and take Indonesia forward, and an ex-General with blood-stained hands and hardline Islamists at his side, who would try to return Indonesia to authoritarian rule.
Earlier this year, Jokowi had a commanding lead in the opinion polls of 20 or 30 per cent. Prabowo successfully reduced the gap during the campaign, through a combination of tactics.
Firstly, many Indonesians found his strongman nationalist image appealing. Many speak positively of the security they felt during the Suharto era, and yearn for strong leadership again.
Secondly, he deployed some nasty, dirty tactics, particularly spreading false rumours casting doubt about Jokowi’s religion and ethnicity. In Indonesia, being a non-Muslim is a political disadvantage, and so Prabowo’s camp claimed Jokowi was actually a Christian. Jokowi was forced to go to elaborate lengths to emphasise his Islamic credentials in response, including going on pilgrimage to Mecca just before polling day. Indonesia has a history of anti-Chinese prejudice, associating the Chinese community with, at different times, both business and Communism, and so Prabowo’s campaign claimed Jokowi was Chinese. These associations, considered slurs in the Indonesian context, may have stuck, even though Jokowi is a Javanese Muslim.
By the end, the campaign had become the most polarised and closely fought race in Indonesia’s history. However, last Wednesday, all but two of the exit polls gave Jokowi a small but clear lead of around five per cent. Jokowi quickly declared victory and people who care about democracy and human rights breathed a sigh of relief.
But it is not yet over. Soon after Jokowi’s declaration, Prabowo claimed victory too, asserting that he had information which showed that the exit polls were wrong. And so now we must wait for the official result, which is expected in just over a week’s time.
Jokowi has been compared with Barack Obama for his sudden appearance on the national stage, his background in community politics, his relative inexperience, his popular appeal and the fact that he represents change. He even resembles the US President physically. Yet if comparisons with US politics are to be made, this election now has the feel of Bush-Gore in Florida in 2000, and the uncertainty and polarisation that produced.
But the comparison with American elections only goes that far. In Indonesia, the consequences could be dangerous. Fears of dirty tricks abound. Many Indonesians and commentators have warned that Prabowo may try to interfere with the count, create instability by sparking riots, launch a legal challenge in the constitutional court, or – in the worst case scenario – encourage the military to intervene directly.
For these reasons, it is vital that the count is closely monitored, and that the world pay attention. It is in all our interests to see a Jokowi presidency. A Prabowo win, especially if it is underhand, would be a defeat for democracy in Indonesia and a setback for freedom around the world.
Indonesia is held up as a great success story, a rare example of a country that has transitioned from dictatorship to democracy and become one of the world’s emerging economies. It is also held up as a role model of a Muslim-majority democracy that is founded on values of religious freedom and pluralism. Those achievements are already threatened by rising religious intolerance driven by radical Islamism in the country. They would be destroyed if the bloodstained hands of the former dictator’s son-in-law seize the levers of power, with an extremist coalition demanding jobs for the boys.