Democracy and Indonesia in the time of Jokowi

Jokowi represents a hope that the democratic system works

James Connolly

Politics, Society and culture | Southeast Asia

12 August 2014

James Connolly shares his insights into the recent Indonesian elections.

To learn a language is to gain an insight into a new world and a new way of thinking. Words exist in other languages that have no direct English translation. The consequential relevance of this is a source of academic contention. For instance, the Indonesian word belum translates to ‘yes but not yet’. To some this is trivial. To others it is an insight into another culture and mindset.

Strategic, diplomatic and economic concerns necessitate an increase in Indonesia-literacy by Australians whether through language or by other means. The election of Joko Widodo (known to Indonesians as Jokowi) to the presidency is a significant moment in the history of Indonesia.

The archipelago consists of over 13,000 islands and has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Since Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Indonesia has emerged as the most important developing democracy in the region not only because of its economic potential but also as a demonstration of Islam’s compatibility with democracy. Jokowi is the first President post-Suharto not to have come from the military or a prominent Indonesian family as Megawati did. The significance of his election to the democratic development of Indonesia can therefore not be understated.

For a month I resided in Salatiga, in Central Java, studying Bahasa Indonesia at Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana. Salatiga sits between Semarang and Solo, at the foot of Mount Merbabu. Whilst there, I observed both the July 9 election and the prior month of campaigning.

As the Indonesian political system exists, only candidates that have the support of at least 20% of the DPR (the Indonesian Lower House) can run for President, pitting Jokowi against former general Prabowo Subianto.

At the time, Jokowi was the Governor of Jakarta and a former Mayor of Solo. Given Salatiga’s proximity to Solo, there was considerable support for the former self-made businessman. Prabowo is the former son-in-law of Suharto who oversaw controversial military missions in East Timor.

Whilst in Australia it is considered impolite to raise politics, money or religion, in Indonesia there is no such taboo. Everyone I encountered had an opinion. Banners and billboards for both candidates lined the streets wherever I went. Millions watched the televised debates that were clearly styled on those in the U.S.A. Indeed, the euphoria surrounding Jokowi was comparable to the response Obama received in 2008. Prabowo also recruited a key figure in John McCain’s campaign, Rob Allyn. The fact that shortly after Allyn joined the campaign, questions about Jokowi’s ethnicity and religion were raised did not go unnoticed by some observers.

On July 9, my homestay family took me to the local polling station. The presence of the army was both intimidating and a reminder of Jakarta’s inability to define the separate roles of the police and armed forces. To my initial horror my homestay mother insisted I accompany her to the allocated booth, defeating the concept of a secret ballot. The ballot featured two images. Nomor satu, featured Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa. Nomor dua featured Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla. To indicate support a voter stabs a nail through the picture of the preferred candidate.

It was then that a member of the armed forces approached and reached into his pocket only to retrieve a mobile phone, grin and insist on taking a photo of me. He didn’t bat an eyelid whilst the woman near the exit insisted that I l dip my finger in purple dye. At least it prevented me from voting for a first time.

Until polls closed at 1pm, my homestay mother proudly raised two fingers to passers by. In any other context this would be considered startlingly rude but on Election Day it was a proud acknowledgement of her support for Jokowi.

Returning to the polling station at 2.30pm I sat and watched as the ballots were counted. ‘Nomor satu’ meant a vote for Prabowo whilst ‘nomor dua’ meant a vote for Jokowi. Once completed, the local polling station gave Jokowi 56% of the vote. The announcement drew spontaneous applause from the gathered crowd prompting the election officer to rise in her place and stress that in the interests of democracy, regardless of whom they voted for, Indonesians must rally behind whoever the next President was to be.

Within hours several quick counts emerged. The more credible ones suggested a nationwide victory to Jokowi by a margin of 52-48 or 53-47. To Indonesians this was a cause for concern. This was only Indonesia’s third Presidential election. The elections of 2004 and 2009 saw Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono win by margins greater than 20%. A margin of 4-6%, a landslide in developed democracies, was new territory for Indonesia. This was exacerbated when both candidates declared victory, the official result not being declared until July 22.

Jokowi represents the hopes of millions of Indonesians who believe that the democratic system works and has the capacity to make a genuine difference in their lives. As Australia struggles with voter apathy and discontent with both major parties, this young democracy offers inspiration. It shows that the system that we so often rail against works.

The political establishment will likely attempt to thwart immediate attempts to further democratise Indonesia. Does Jokowi’s election indicate that it is possible? For the stability and development of the region as well as the aspirations of millions of Indonesians, one hopes the answer is belum.


nomor satu = number 1
nomor dua = number 2

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