Insights and Analysis

Eight Takeaways from Indonesia’s Presidential Election

July 9, 2014

By Andrew Thornley

Indonesians went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president and vice president. This election represents the first transition from one democratically elected president to another in Indonesia’s history. The scale and consequences of the election are enormous, but the contest is simple: two tickets, pitting Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, against Gerindra party chairman Prabowo Subianto and Hatta Rajasa.


Reputable quick counts suggest that Jokowi has won by a thin margin. This election represents Indonesia’s first transition from one democratically elected president to another in Indonesia’s history. Photo/Tim Mann

Reputable quick counts suggest that Jokowi has won by a thin margin. Here are eight takeaways from this remarkable election campaign.

  1. Campaigning on issues. Predictable appeals for more substance aside, the candidates and their teams have established a high water mark for issue-based campaigning. The result is strikingly different visions for Indonesia’s future. Jokowi advocates bureaucratic reforms and has challenged Indonesians to end corruption and build their nation. He points to his record in public service as a problem-solver and has issued a “Nine-Point Plan” to get there. Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Suharto and special forces commander, has campaigned for a return to strong leadership and a strong state. He has issued a “Six Point Action Plan to Transform the Nation.” The candidates offer different solutions on important issues, from fuel subsidies to infrastructure development to health care. Crafty developers have built apps to track candidate campaign promises. It is not clear, though, how many Indonesians base their vote on such issues.
  2. No shortage of character. The campaigns have promoted starkly contrasting personas: Jokowi is overwhelmingly depicted as merakyat – of the people – whereas Prabowo is projected as tegas, or tough. Jokowi dons his notorious casual checked shirt and easy smile in campaign paraphernalia. Prabowo, meanwhile, prefers to be featured wearing military fatigues or a Sukarno safari suit, or positioned with a roaring tiger. The celebrity and Prabowo supporter Ahmad Dhani stated bluntly, “If a man doesn’t vote for Prabowo, his masculinity must be questioned.” Jokowi’s banners, meanwhile, proclaim him to be Tegas Tapi Santun – tough but polite. No feral cats for Jokowi, please.
  3. Strong turnout. Indonesians have once again demonstrated strong faith and interest in direct elections. Voter turnout today is estimated to have once again exceeded 70 percent. This is of particular relevance given that Prabowo has questioned the merits of direct elections. Turnout might have been even higher had there not been administrative problems, notably overseas – as highlighted by prominent NGO Migrant Care.
  4. The party is over? Prabowo enjoyed endorsement by political parties that won approximately 60 percent of the April legislative elections, and yet most quick counts suggest he won approximately 48 percent of the vote to 52 percent for Jokowi. Simply put, these data are further indication of the well-documented challenges Indonesia’s parties face in mobilizing votes.
  5. Mixed media messages. In this election, many of Indonesia’s media have not just crossed the line of partisanship but sprinted through it with glee, reflecting the party and candidate loyalties of their owners. For example, the four quick counts suggesting a narrow Prabowo victory (as opposed to six other quick counts declaring a Jokowi victory) were the only quick counts cited on television stations owned by Prabowo backers Hary Tanoesoedibjo and the Bakrie family. Indonesia’s legal framework offers no ready cure in terms of prevention or punishment. Rather, it will be up to these media themselves, their professional associations, and oversight bodies such as the Press Council and the Broadcasting Commission, to determine whether they continue to ride this partisan slide after the elections, or self-impose a standard of professional ethics to defend the integrity of Indonesia’s important free press.
  6. Corruption, as usual. The pattern is familiar. Vote-buying has involved direct payments of cash or provision of goods. And this will, for the most part, go unpunished. Civil society organizations note that the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) has not confronted electoral corruption head-on or facilitated public reporting. In general, people remain afraid to come forward as witnesses about election violations – although they are increasingly willing to report via SMS and social media through crowdsourcing sites such as Indonesia Corruption Watch. A 2013 Asia Foundation survey suggested that vote-buying is not an effective electoral strategy in Indonesia. However, fraudulent manipulation of the vote count is. The legislative elections yielded numerous allegations of electoral officers rigging election results for cash. All eyes are now carefully scrutinizing the official presidential vote tally.
  7. Brand mismanagement. Back in March, Jokowi was leading in opinion polls by as much as 30 percent. This appeared then to be an unassailable lead. But Jokowi’s late nomination as candidate combined with fractured campaign direction, poor logistical management, and inadequate mobilization of campaign resources diminished the potential value of his brand. And this in the face of Prabowo’s campaign, which has been well-orchestrated, well-funded, and aggressive.
  8. Smearing to new lows. Negative campaigning is to be expected. But this presidential election has seen smear campaigning – false information to undermine a candidate’s reputation – to an unprecedented extent. At various times, Jokowi has been labeled Christian, Shiite, not Muslim enough, Chinese, and communist by elements supporting the Prabowo campaign. A recent pro-Prabowo video with performers in Nazi uniforms invites its own conclusions. On the other side, prominent political observer Wimar Witoelar – a Jokowi supporter – faced defamation charges after he posted on social media a picture of Prabowo photo-shopped alongside a “rogue’s gallery” of Islamic extremists. All of this is thin ice in Indonesia, where it is a criminal offence to exploit issues of “SARA” (ethnicity, religion, race and inter-group relations) in elections. These smears have fanned racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice and, as such, risk damage beyond this election.

Official results are due by July 22. Should either ticket appeal the results to the Constitutional Court (and it is almost certain now that the Jokowi camp would should they lose, given the quick count results), the final results may not be known until late August. In the meantime, we will wait and watch. For good or bad, this election is certainly one of the most significant in Indonesia’s history.

Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia, Washington DC
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Corruption, Elections

1 Comment

  1. I think its worth mentioning that on the day after the election the stock value of these media houses was corrected by almost 5%-perhaps indicating a healthy market mechanisms to ‘punish’ them-or could be a mere sign of investors betting on the winning horse-cause the pro-Jokowi Media houses’ share went up by similar margins

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