Op-Ed: Indonesia’s Jokowi needs world’s backing

After a tense two-week ballot recount in Indonesia's closest ever race for the top job, election officials declared the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, center, the winner in the July 9 presidential election.
(Romeo Gacad / AFP/Getty Images)

Democracy prevailed in Indonesia this week. Now leaders there and around the world must quickly get behind the country’s president-elect.

After a tense two-week ballot recount in Indonesia’s closest ever race for the top job, election officials declared the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the winner in the July 9 presidential election.

The world’s most populous Muslim country and 10th-largest economy, Indonesia is also the third-largest democracy, behind India and the United States. Through successive cycles of elections since the fall of longtime strongman Suharto in 1998, the diverse and complex country has been hailed as a model of an open, moderate, tolerant, multiethnic and multi-religious society.

All that seemed at risk in recent weeks, as the most divisive campaign in Indonesian history produced an unprecedented standoff on election night, with both candidates proclaiming victory.


The dueling declarations were the result of conflicting “quick counts,” or statistical sampling of votes. Eight counts found Jokoto be the winner by 4 to 6 percentage points. Four others projected that former special forces commander and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto had won by a more narrow margin. With both candidates defiant and the country in political limbo, the burden for resolving the dispute fell to the country’s General Election Commission, or KPU, which by law had two weeks to certify the results.

The KPU set about the daunting task of tabulating some 136 million votes from nearly half a million polling stations, posting results on its website to maximize transparency. As it became clear that Jokowi, as he is popularly known, would be certified as president-elect, Prabowo made a last-ditch effort to derail the process, preemptively announcing his “withdrawal” from the vote count because of what he characterized as “massive, structural and systematic fraud” in the election. This was the latest in a series of antics by Prabowo designed to delay and obfuscate results, having both demanded a revote in some areas and insisted that the KPU halt the vote count altogether over the preceding days.

The eleventh-hour hijinks raised the political temperature in the country, as rumors spread that angry Prabowo supporters planned violent demonstrations. The KPU, however, was undeterred, announcing on Monday that Jokowi had won by a convincing 8 million votes.

The only recourse for Prabowo now would be to launch a challenge in the constitutional court, but given his “withdrawal” from the race, it is unclear whether he even has standing to do so. Even if he does, the nine-member constitutional court has no history of overturning results in presidential contests. Bottom line: This race is over. Jokowi, beloved for his integrity and inclusiveness by Indonesia’s poor and lower middle class, will take office as president of the republic on Oct. 20.

The only question left is how messy might things get between now and then. Prabowo has a dark past filled with allegations of human rights abuses during his military career, including the torture and kidnapping of student activists during the turmoil that brought down his father-in-law and deadly suppression of dissent in restive provinces such as West Papua and East Timor (now an independent state). He has proven in this campaign that he is still prepared to go to great lengths to achieve his objectives. His supporters shamefully played ethnicity and religion cards throughout the campaign, falsely accusing Jokowi of being Chinese, non-Muslim and even a communist. Raising such charges in a country with a history of ethnic, religious and anti-communist conflict was reckless and inexcusable, diminishing the quality of Indonesia’s democracy and opening the door to possible violence.

Indonesians did not take the bait. As in previous plebiscites, the election was peaceful. Voter participation was a robust 75% and civic participation was at an all-time high, with hundreds of thousands of volunteers monitoring polling stations to guard the integrity of the vote. In short, Indonesians rose above the divisive discourse, cementing their country’s reputation as a model for the Muslim world and beyond.

Indonesians can be expected to behave with similar wisdom in the coming months, seeing Prabowo’s rejection of the results for precisely what it is: the undignified behavior of a sore loser.

Now Indonesia’s leaders must come together to isolate Prabowo and prevent further provocations. This is especially true of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. His party backed Prabowo in the race and one of his in-laws was the former general’s running mate. The president must now forget politics and publicly endorse Jokowi as president-elect. Yudhoyono’s men populate key state agencies, including, most importantly, the security forces, which would play an important role in the event of election-related unrest.


If Yudhoyono wants to retain respect after he steps down, he must set a clear tone and use his considerable authority to ensure a smooth transition of power to Jokowi. History will forget whatever good Yudhoyono did in his decade in office if he oversees a messy succession.

President Obama and other leaders can do their part by reinforcing that message with the outgoing president and by quickly calling to congratulate Jokowi on his win. Indonesia has turned an important page with this election, rejecting the strongman politics of the past in favor of a more inclusive, democratic and meritocratic future. Jokowi will be the first Indonesian president with no military background, no connections to the Suharto era, and no family ties to Indonesia’s traditional elite. Unbound by the past, the president-elect has a genuine opportunity to advance reform and lead the country forward. The international community should make every effort to see that he succeeds.

Karen Brooks is adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations on Asian affairs.

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