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Indonesia -- a nation redivided

After an apparently decisive win, it's time for Jokowi to bring country together again

| Indonesia

President Joko Widodo's seemingly decisive victory over his challenger Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia's presidential election confirms that Indonesians prefer a unifying and reliable status quo to unpredictable change and uncertainty.

In an election marked by fierce debate about national identity and economic direction, Widodo's chief advantage was incumbency. As in the 2009 election, when voters re-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by a wide margin, many Indonesians were inclined to support continuity in the absence of palpable economic counter-arguments.

For all Prabowo's talk about the high cost of living and selling out to foreign ownership, most Indonesians are enjoying better services and higher spending power than five years ago -- even if the basic cost of living has increased.

Yet Widodo's smaller-than-expected 9-10-point victory margin and some significantly redrawn political boundaries indicate that the country's 193 million voters were split. The likely president-elect's immediate challenge is how to satisfy the millions who did not vote for him and bring them closer to his supporters on a range of critical social and economic issues.

The April 17 poll was a rematch between the same protagonists as in the 2014 election -- Widodo versus Prabowo. But this time, the campaign was mainly fought along sensitive lines of religious identity that questioned assumptions about Indonesia's tolerance of diversity.

Prabowo, a former general who entered politics in 2009, built his campaign on promises to support a conservative Islamic agenda that gained strength on the back of mass protests two years ago to topple the Chinese and Christian former Jakarta Governor, a close Widodo ally. To counter the Islamic lobby's support for Prabowo, Widodo chose as his running mate Ma'aruf Amin, a conservative Muslim cleric from the country's largest Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU.

Even so, Prabowo succeeded in galvanizing Islamist strongholds forcing religion to the top of the campaign agenda. The move reignited one of the oldest conflicts in Indonesian history -- the struggle by Islamic purists for the country, which is more than 87 % Muslim, to define itself as an Islamic state, or caliphate.

The interim results of Wednesday's vote show a country more divided along religious lines, reviving strongholds of the Darul Islam rebellion that raged in the 1960s, across parts of Sumatra, West Java and South Sulawesi, where Prabowo's team won convincingly. Widodo won big across Christian North Sulawesi, Papua in Eastern Indonesia and Hindu Bali, and with NU's help boosted his vote in Muslim East and Central Java, which were never part of the DI rebellion.

This leaves the winner with the challenging task of uniting the country and shoring up defenses against conservative religious dogma. Indonesia's economic fortunes will depend on how successfully it can continue to project itself as a moderate Muslim nation. Already highly decentralized, local autonomy could allow parts of the country to effectively implement conservative Islamic law, as is already the case in Aceh in North Sumatra.

Observers fearful of the erosion of pluralism argue that the results, which show strong support for Islamicization in areas where Prabowo won, such as West Java, will tempt Widodo to pander to the Islamic lobby in his second term. There is already a lot of discomfort in pluralist circles with concessions the president made to defeat Prabowo, who appears to have garnered 45% of the vote.

Just three days before the polls, Widodo rushed to Saudi Arabia to perform the Muslim pilgrimage. This may now oblige Widodo to the Saudi government which has done so much over the last 30 years to promote conservative Salafist and Wahhabi teaching in Indonesia.

Equally the conservative Islamic groups which rallied behind Prabowo may launch new mass protests if they see no progress on such issues as Shariah law, banning alcohol and the criminal laws targeting the LGBT community. The so-called 212 Movement that coordinated mass protests in 2017 has already called for rallies in Jakarta over the Easter weekend.

Optimists will take comfort from the fact that while competitive politics increasingly accentuates divisions, after the campaigning is over, most Indonesians prefer carefully-managed pluralism to unstable sectarianism. The election itself was peaceful and the democratic spirit remarkable, with voter turnout higher than in 2014 at around 80 percent.

However, much will now depend on Widodo's leadership during his second and final term in office.

If the 2009-14 period is anything to go by, second-term Presidents in Indonesia are prone to losing their way. Widodo's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono frittered away his stronger mandate after re-election pandering to special interests and insisting on loyalty over quality in government.

Widodo has already angered the business community by shoring up the state sector, and shown weakness in the face of efforts by the military to increase its influence over government through a proposal to appoint surplus military officers to civilian jobs. With the debt he now owes to NU and its vast network of rural clerics, and the startling success of the National Awakening Party, or PKB, associated with NU in the parliamentary elections, there are fears he may be obliged to support a legislative program furthering the Islamic agenda.

But more optimistic analysts argue though that Widodo in his final term has much less to lose and could address the challenges to pluralism in Indonesia at the risk of alienating the Islamic lobby.

However, take that with a pinch of salt. Widodo increasingly relies on a tough security approach, which contributes to the abuse of human rights, and lacks the intellectual heft to weave a vision that reconciles the competing ideas of Muslim dominance with equality of citizenship in a plural setting. A national dialogue may help, but it needs leadership from above.

But for the moment, there is the election outcome to be resolved, with questions still hovering over the final result. The complexity of this year's election -- combining parliamentary and legislative polls with the presidential vote on the same day -- caused some confusion among voters and fanned complaints about cheating. Prabowo made things worse by insisting that the "real count," as he termed it, had him winning with 62% of the votes. These issues are likely to be settled, as they were back in 2014, by legal process, with final results expected by end-May.

Meanwhile, Indonesia needs to get back to work. Jokowi's track record as a president who gets things done assured his re-election and will see a revival of his ambitious infrastructure plans, including the completion of the trans-Java highway and a high-speed rail link from Jakarta to Bandung. But sadly, the bruising and divisive campaign will make it harder to focus on the bread-and-butter economic policies that Indonesia needs to develop and bring its people higher living standards.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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