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Indonesian Election: Picking up the Pieces From a Toxic Campaign

July 9, 2014

After being inundated by months of campaigning, it now looks like it will be some time before Indonesian electors can come up for air and focus on repairing some of the damage of a divisive election season. Indonesia has witnessed the tightest and most polarized presidential election in the democratic era, involving the deployment of a toxic collection of negative and mainly false rumors based on religion and ethnicity. With both candidates claiming victory, this may continue until a definitive winner is announced.

Indonesia elections

After being inundated by months of campaigning, it now looks like it will be some time before Indonesian electors can come up for air and focus on repairing some of the damage of a divisive election season. Photo/Tim Mann

The campaign has not been without moments of lightness and creativity, and there have been several constructive discussions on policy. But it has been disheartening to see how successful unsophisticated appeals to fear and ignorance have largely been in swaying voters’ opinions.

Both sides have deployed negative strategies, although expected victor Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, bore the brunt of the attacks. Mata Massa, a mobile application and website that allows citizens to report electoral violations, announced last week that 90 percent of the reports it received between June 4 and July 3 were directed at Jokowi. Analysts have suggested that a significant portion of opponent Prabowo Subianto’s success in paring down Jokowi’s 30 percent lead in opinion polls since March could be attributed to the smear campaigns advanced by his supporters. But in the period leading up to the vote there was a widespread perception that no matter the outcome, the damage had already been done. Typifying this distress, Indonesian cultural icon Goenawan Mohamad tweeted on Tuesday: “Intense negative campaigns cause fissures in the social and political life of a nation. Divisions that will live on beyond the election.”

The apparent decline in Indonesia’s often-lauded values of pluralism and tolerance under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been widely reported and discussed. But the fact that crude, baseless rumors have had such currency with the electorate has raised worries that the foundation of tolerance in Indonesian society is even shallower than most believed.

The slander has been as baffling as it has been unrelenting. Under the New Order regime of former President Suharto, public discussion of issues of SARA (ethnicity, religion, race, and intergroup relations) was forbidden. As such, they remain highly charged in the democratic era – and are thus vulnerable to exploitation. Jokowi, a Javanese Muslim, has had to counter claims that he is an agent of the United States and China, that he is secretly Shiite, Christian, and of Chinese descent. A rumor circulating on social media suggested the honorific “H.” in front of his name – commonly used to indicate a person has made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – actually stood for Hubertus. And in a nation where anti-communist sentiment is pervasive, it was almost inevitable that he would eventually be accused of being a communist. Recently a member of Prabowo’s campaign team suggested that Jokowi’s “Mental Revolution” manifesto was inspired by communism.

Jokowi’s decision to make the minor pilgrimage during the enforced three-day “cooling off period” between the end of the campaign and election day is an indication of just how damaging his camp believes the slurs have been. On Monday, pictures of Jokowi wearing white robes and praying in Mecca circulated across social media. In a display typical of the vicious nature of the campaign, almost immediately there were accusations that he was wearing the robes incorrectly or the photos had been edited.

Although Jokowi’s supporters have deployed smear tactics less frequently, they have not been above using grubby strategies. Late in the campaign, advertisements linking to “Stop Prabowo” appeared on Indonesian online news sites, declaring: “He never fasts. He never prays. Why does Prabowo have to pretend to be a Muslim? Don’t choose Prabowo-Hatta!” Prominent former presidential spokesman Wimar Witoelar was recently reported for defamation after he tweeted a photo appearing to link Prabowo and his nominating parties to the Bali bombers and Osama bin Laden. This poisonous environment has meant that even legitimate, evidence-based questions about the candidates’ real records can easily be dismissed as “black campaigns” by the opposing side’s supporters.

Much has been said about the influence of social media on Indonesian elections, but the most potent smears against Jokowi have spread in a decidedly old-fashioned manner: through prayer groups, diligent SMS broadcasts, and door-to-door campaigning. A text message that spread through conservative Aceh province claimed that if Jokowi became president he would install a Shiite as minister for religious affairs and seek to convert Indonesia’s majority Sunni population to Shiah Islam. The Jokowi campaign also appears to have been greatly damaged by false rumors spread by the tabloid Obor Rakyat which was widely distributed through the Islamic boarding school, or pesantren, system in Central and East Java.

Most dirty campaign strategies do not appear to have been endorsed directly by either camp. Prabowo’s candidacy is supported by a coalition that includes four Islam-based parties — the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party (PPP), the National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Crescent Star Party (PBB). His campaign team has been highly effective in branding Prabowo as the only candidate who truly represents the aspirations of Indonesia’s Muslim community. His ticket has therefore also attracted the support of hardline Islamic groups, which have had a significant role in spreading smear campaigns online. But only accusations of Jokowi’s alleged links to communism have reportedly come directly from the Prabowo campaign team.

Despite the clear legal basis to act on these dirty tactics, the government has appeared reluctant to take action, even when the slander is clearly fanning the flames of religious intolerance. The Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu), which is tasked with handling electoral disputes, and the police have both appeared indifferent. Following significant public pressure, last week the police finally named the founder and editor of Obor Rakyat as suspects for spreading slander.

For civil society activists, these efforts have come too late. Many believe that advances in strengthening tolerance and respect for minority communities have been undone. Existing divisions have been reinforced, and new ones have opened up. Jokowi’s position on pluralism is clear. And a significant number of his supporters spoke out strongly against the use of smear campaigns against their candidate. He will need their ongoing support. He has a big job ahead of him to mend the fissures that have been exposed in Indonesian society.

Tim Mann is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. He can be reached at tim.mann@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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