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Indonesia’s Reformasi, Bearing Fruit 16 Years Later

August 6, 2014

By Sandra Hamid

In this year’s hotly contested presidential elections, Indonesia’s democracy went through what probably has been its hardest test yet. Two hours before the General Elections Commission (KPU) announced the final results on July 22, when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s victory was becoming increasingly obvious, his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, retracted himself from the process, citing massive irregularities and unfair treatment by the KPU.

In 2012, Jokowi won the governorship of the country's capital, Jakarta, and in early 2014 announced his presidential candidacy. In 10 years he moved up from a constituency of over 500,000 in Central Java to lead the third-largest democracy in the world. Photo/Flickr user Eduardo M. C.

In 2012, Jokowi won the governorship of the country’s capital, Jakarta, and in early 2014 announced his presidential candidacy. In 10 years he moved up from a constituency of over 500,000 in Central Java to lead the third-largest democracy in the world. Photo/Flickr user Eduardo M. C.

This was the first in a series of dramas staged by Prabowo’s team that had the potential to put a dent in the electoral system. Fortunately, Indonesian’s 16-year-long democratic project is surviving well. Dynamic local politics have produced key players actively participating in national politics. Their participation, combined with the tenacious power of civil society and most importantly, the strong commitment from Indonesians to democracy and constitution, have thus far avoided what could have been a crisis of trust.

When Prabowo retracted himself from the race, for a moment he created confusion. The whole country wondered how to respond to his move and what it meant. Later in the week, the country learned that Prabowo ‘s team would bring the case to the Constitutional Court – the only route available to contest election results. A day before the case was filed Prabowo uploaded a YouTube video claiming that “this election has failed. This election is unlawful.” With carefully chosen words, he attempted to instill distrust in the system. The country, he said, was “heading to failure.”

Prior to this about-face, Prabowo had continually reassured voters that he would accept the KPU’s results. For many, the KPU’s announcement of Jokowi’s victory was not a surprise, as the results accurately confirmed election-day quick-count results released only hours after polls had closed that also showed Jokowi’s lead. Yet Prabowo’s team quickly denounced the numbers and chose to cite other quick counts that put them on top and thus claimed to have been victorious. These questionable quick count institutions came under attack but they managed to create uncertainty over the results of the elections as well as to instill doubt in the process.

When Prabowo’s team submitted the case to the Court with much fanfare, many let out sighs of relief, for at least he had chosen a route recognized by the law. It is important to note that Prabowo is not the only candidate who has in the past contested the results of elections through the Constitutional Court. But none has done so with actions and statements that can only be seen as systematic attempts to delegitimize the entire electoral process.

Despite these blows, the electoral process remains intact and Indonesians have shown a strong belief in the system. It was only 16 years ago that a pro-democracy movement wrestled power away from Soeharto who had ruled the country for 32 years. In 2004, Indonesians had a chance, for the first time, to vote directly for their president. Electoral democracy is a young tradition in this country and the result of the reformasi movement that brought Soeharto down. The movement has also brought about changes that redefine Indonesia’s political landscape, including massive (some call it over-ambitious) decentralization and direct elections for president, governors, mayors, and district heads. Indonesia has also made critical decisions to secure its democracy, redefining the role of its military, installing the police in a more strategic position, and establishing institutions, including the KPU and the Constitutional Court.

The implementation of these projects has not always been perfect. What the world sees now as Indonesia’s success in transforming itself from an authoritarian state to a democracy cannot be separated from the country’s commitment to not give up on these endeavors. Today, it is very clear that Indonesia’s experiment with decentralization and direct local elections has given the country two key players: its president-elect and a very credible KPU.

President-elect Joko Widodo is the embodiment of local success turned national. In 2005, Jokowi became the mayor of Solo, a small town in the province of Central Java. Five years later in 2010, as an incumbent he was re-elected with an overwhelming victory with a new way of governing – listening, simplifying seemingly complex issues, and taking action. Civil society organizations took notice and Jokowi won various awards at the national and international levels, including a prestigious anti-corruption award and third place in the World Mayor Prize.

But the key political juncture that defined this former furniture businessman was when, as mayor of Solo, he won a very public battle against the governor of Central Java, a former high-ranking military figure. At the core of the dispute was the governor’s plan to build a mall in Solo. Jokowi’s position to reject it was widely applauded inside and outside Solo. In 2012, he won the governorship of the country’s capital, Jakarta, and in early 2014 announced his presidential candidacy. In 10 years he moved up from a constituency of over 500,000 in Central Java to lead the third-largest democracy in the world.

Another major player in the 2014 elections was the KPU itself. And again, this is a story of local gems with real experience managing local elections who have graduated to become key figures at the national level. Five of the seven commissioners had served in regional KPUs, each with more than 10 years of experience in managing elections, and four of them have even served as chairpersons at the provincial level. Five of the seven commissioners have served in regional KPUs, four of them as chairpersons. The other two came from civil society. When the commissioners were announced, many election observers hailed it as the “election dream team” that will imbue confidence to the system. Given Prabowo’s actions in the past weeks, it is extremely fortunate that Indonesia has a credible KPU.

And indeed they have delivered. Realizing the people’s vocal criticism of the past commissions, the new members have made utmost attempts for transparency, uploading documents that allowed citizens to check the numbers of votes recorded at each polling station. While citizen involvement has been one of the most amazing stories of this election, it was KPU’s decision to be open and transparent that has allowed unprecedented parallel vote tabulation through a variety of independent, crowd-sourcing websites. Confident with their work, and facing pressure from Prabowo’s team to postpone the announcement, the commissioners stood firm and continued with their schedule unfazed.

These commissioners will again take the center stage as they face Prabowo’s legal team in the Constitutional Court. Many experts project it to be close to impossible for Prabowo to change the result. After a much-needed lull from a tense election courtesy of the end of Ramadhan festivities, Indonesians are again wrapped up in the court process, including Prabowo’s report against the commissioners to the election Ethics Committee, his challenge of the results in the State Administrative High Court, and galvanizing class action.

Before the end of August, Indonesia will learn the final and binding decision of the Constitutional Court. How Prabowo and his team respond, and how Indonesian voters react to that response will define what comes next. Many political analysts have looked to Indonesia as an example of a country successfully establishing democracy on the ruins of authoritarianism. Key to this success is how local politics tested and screened politicians, regional commissioners, and elections activists. The reformasi project has allowed this to happen, and the best of them have become important players on the national stage. At the center, as in the regions, voters will have to continue engaging the new government to combat transactional politics and to demand action on critical issues, such as pluralism, public security, and human rights. The reformasi movement, long felt as a failure amid the serious problems facing Indonesia, is finally bearing fruit.

*Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original. 

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. This was a wonderfully written article Sandra Hamid. I would have liked to hear how the pro Jokowi military has assembled. That said, the key to this president is to appreciate his handling of the national in a nicely local tone….In this odd global period, it is a great time for Indonesia to put its left of center face forward in a reformist wisely mature way. Way to go Sandra, John MacDougall

  2. Sandra Hamid choose a very good title for her informative article. I wonder whether the reformations aimed at in the countries that are involved in the so called “Arab Spring” will have to take an equally long time to materialize..

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