24 April 2019
Last August, Indonesian president Joko Widodo, with hours left to register a running mate for this year’s election, faced a terrible choice.
He had to decide between his preferred candidate – a former chief judge – and Ma’ruf Amin, a powerful Islamic cleric who has fuelled the nation’s growing intolerance of minorities. Ma’ruf helped to orchestrate the downfall of Jakarta’s former Christian governor, with whom Joko was close, and has pushed to outlaw homosexuality and transgender activities. But, without him, Joko risked losing the support of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation.
So, Joko, a T-shirt-wearing Metallica fan, chose Ma’ruf, a devout sandal-wearing traditionalist. Last Wednesday, initial election results showed that Joko’s choice paid off. He won, helped by gains in areas where Ma’ruf’s support is strongest.
Joko’s victory against Prabowo Subianto, a staunch nationalist, was the better result for Australia. But its manner does not bode well for Indonesia, or for the prospect that Joko may arrest the country’s unfortunate slide away from liberal democracy.
The final election results will not be announced until 22 May. Initial counts by six polling groups, which are typically reliable, indicate that Joko won 54 to 55 per cent of the vote. This was slightly better for Joko than at the 2014 election, when he won 53 per cent of the vote, also against Prabowo.
But the results – especially the geographic analyses – are likely to reveal that Joko owes an electoral debt to his new vice-president. More significantly, the appointment of Ma’ruf highlights the reason to be cautious about Indonesia’s direction for the next five years. Joko has repeatedly shown that he lacks the will or the political capital to defend minority rights, or to seriously combat corruption in the public sector, or to oversee far-reaching economic reforms.
Joko’s victory is also unlikely to deliver a much-needed boost to the relationship between Australia and its northern neighbour.
Indonesia has a population of more than 260 million, and is predicted to become the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2030, yet it is only Australia’s thirteenth-largest trading partner. Last year, Australia’s trade with Indonesia was less than that with Hong Kong, which has a population of seven million.
In March this year, Joko went ahead with a trade agreement with Australia, a potentially politically risky move after Scott Morrison, facing domestic troubles during the Wentworth by-election, proposed to move Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Yet Joko has not shown much interest in foreign policy, or in Australia. And, according to Tim Lindsey, an Indonesia expert at the University of Melbourne, the post-election politicking between the major parties may yet destroy the much-hyped trade deal.
“For all its rhetoric of deregulation, Indonesia remains protectionist, with a track record of protecting politically powerful vested interests,” he wrote in an analysis for the university. “Jokowi and Prabowo’s parties … are nationalist and often suspicious of foreign influence. They may well want [the agreement] to undergo major amendment or just decide to dump it.”
One key reason to celebrate Joko’s win was that Prabowo, a former lieutenant general who has developed links to hardline Islamists, lost. Yet Prabowo still secured a sizable vote, despite a lacklustre and largely negative campaign.
Joko will now try to press ahead with his ambitious plans to invest in much-needed infrastructure and healthcare and to continue to lower the poverty rate. His best hope to continue his agenda of economic development is to form a cabinet that includes technocrats, rather than members of coalition partners or the associates of powerful tycoons who invested heavily in the election. Most analysts believe this is unlikely, especially if the election results confirm that Joko did little to extend his winning margin from 2014.
Yet the main reason to celebrate last week’s election was that it was conducted peacefully. Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, has 193 million registered voters, across 17,000 islands. Turnout was 80 per cent, which was significantly higher than in 2014.
The election showed that Indonesian democracy is entrenched. But so, it seems, is an unwillingness to tackle those forces – such as intolerance and corruption – that prevent it from becoming stronger, healthier and more prosperous.