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Margaret Scott: Indonesia will entrench vibrant democracy

The defiant loser Prabowo Subianto's last-minute repudiation of the results may trigger a legal dispute that could complicate the aftermath. Regardless, Subianto's rejectionism cannot alter the global significance of the message delivered by voters of this sprawling archipelago, which is home to the world's largest national Muslim population.

Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla, Indonesia's president and vice-president elect, at Indonesia's election commission on July 22 evening. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

     Joko Widodo, a political phenomenon from the reformasi, or reform, generation that drove former President Suharto's authoritarian New Order government from power in 1998, went from an assured 20-point lead in early opinion polls to almost level with his rival before roaring back to victory. The roller-coaster nature of the campaign reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the new president, and of Indonesia's new politics. But Widodo's victory shows that the majority of Indonesians understood the stark choice facing them, as well as the importance of guarding their votes after election day.

     His victory also offers a clear answer to the perennial question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible. Indonesia is not a model for anywhere else. Yet it is worth remembering that voters chose Widodo, a pluralist democrat and a pious Muslim, in their third peaceful cycle of direct elections, while many Muslims elsewhere remain in the grip of authoritarian regimes, dictatorial monarchies or, for Egyptians, the ruins of a democratic experiment.

     Why and how this happened matters, mostly to Indonesians but also to the rest of the world. From that sultry afternoon in March when Subianto mounted a chestnut horse and paraded before thousands of supporters in a Jakarta stadium, his message was clear: A nationalist strongman was what Indonesia needed.

     A New Order grandee, the former general who was responsible for the disappearances of pro-democracy activists had become a master of post-Suharto politics, which revolve around corruption, patronage and coalitions. The political elite flocked to him, the money flowed in, and Subianto began chomping into the commanding lead of Widodo.

     Subianto offered a mash-up of former strongmen Suharto and Sukarno, independent Indonesia's first president, and drew into his inner circle Indonesia's leading Islamist parties. Added to this was a slick U.S.-style negative campaign strategy. The spin portrayed Widodo as the puppet of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads the party that nominated him, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. The mix proved intoxicating to many, and Widodo's lead dwindled to almost nothing, according to polls in late June.

     But ultimately, something changed: Reformasi activists came out of the woodwork for Widodo, and so did an army of social media volunteers, rural farmers and the urban poor. Almost despite their candidate -- who kept to his low-key, meet-the-people campaigning style -- the election was transformed into a referendum on who best represented reform, democracy and Indonesian values. There was a backlash against Subianto's slick and negative approach, especially when a tabloid newspaper claimed that Widodo was a "secret Christian" and ethnically Chinese. Much was also made of Subianto's desire to return to the 1945 constitution, stripped of democratic reforms, and his view that democracy "exhausts us." A thundering pro-Widodo concert on July 5 at the same Jakarta stadium where Subianto had emerged on horseback framed the choice as between democracy and a return to authoritarian rule.

The future of political Islam

It was as if the 2014 election had morphed into a repeat of the 1998 pro-democracy battle, although many Islamists, so vital to the movement back then, were missing because they had joined Subianto's camp. Their absence -- and what it bodes for the future of political Islam -- will partly shape Widodo's presidency. In Indonesia the word "Islamist" conveys a focus on religious issues, but no party has advocated an Islamic state. Subianto captured the main Islamist parties, mostly because of the structure of elite politics -- and because they had nowhere else to go.

     The election results and the divisive two-week period in which both claimed victory, promise a complicated reshuffling of alliances, and a rethinking of the role of religion in politics. For years, academics and activists have dissected the growth of religious intolerance and worried about Islamization; yet many Muslim voters resisted the call of Subianto's camp and rejected a sophisticated campaign to woo voters using religion. There is persuasive evidence that Widodo drew most of the votes of pious Muslims.

     Certainly Indonesia's vibrant civil society and its embrace of smartphones and the internet explain the remarkable volunteer effort to ensure accuracy in the official vote count. What started as citizens taking photographs of the results at local polling stations led to the largest crowdsourcing of a vote count ever undertaken. A young computer wizard, a 28-year-old Indonesian based in Singapore, created Kawalpemilu, or Guard the Vote, an open source effort that matched the official election commission's data base with a vote count submitted by volunteers, helping to ensure transparency and accuracy. Subianto's post-election claim of victory flew in the face of the open-data vote count, which correctly showed that Widodo won by some 8 million votes.

     Legal challenge or no, Widodo's presidency faces serious obstacles. How he plans to tackle them -- especially widespread corruption, a weak judiciary, and religious intolerance, to name a few -- is far from clear. Widodo will have to address the deep rifts exposed in this election, from angry Subianto supporters to Islamists who rail against him. And to fulfil his can-do image, he needs to work with a fragmented parliament filled with members who are deep in debt and seeking payback after the most expensive election ever. It is a daunting prospect. Perhaps he should remember that he won the poll almost despite himself. He is president because he was elected by voters, who have the rights and freedoms to which so many in the Arab uprisings aspired -- and ultimately, they were not willing to give them up.

Margaret Scott is a writer specializing in Indonesia and is an adjunct professor at New York University.

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