Last week I was in Jakarta on the eve of the official announcement of Indonesia’s new president. With both of the two election candidates, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto, having claimed victory via popular polls just after votes were cast three weeks ago, Indonesia’s capital was anxious for an answer – fully caught up in election fever.
In Indonesia, those who have been previously apolitical have started nailing their flags to the country’s rather new and shiny democratic mast and everyone from street campaigners to fundraising socialites have declared allegiance to either Jokowi – the young, popular governor of Jakarta – or Prabowo, a former lieutenant general in Suharto’s regime. The latter is the husband of the former dictator’s daughter and a candidate whose history has been tarred with often violent controversy.
A day ahead of the announcement last week the city was preparing itself. Some offices were closed, encouraging employees to stay at home while other people were cancelling travel plans in order to avoid navigating Jakarta’s streets, which many thought would be even more choked up than usual. Everyone I spoke to thought it was better to be safe than sorry – many were choosing to stay home or opting to leave Jakarta in case the presidential announcement provoked devastating riots similar to those seen in 1998. Jokowi’s camp encouraged its supporters to stay home and avoid wearing the chequered shirt that has come to represent the governor and his devotees. As I drove out of the city that morning in order to report on a story in another part of the country, Jakarta’s jam-packed streets were strangely quiet.
This concern from Jakarta residents revolves predominantly around Prabowo. As the former commander of Kostrad, a specialist strategic group within the Indonesian Army, the former military man had a direct hand in the 1998 riots. An incomplete investigation has revealed suggestions that in 1998 Prabowo stirred up the rioters and allowed violence to escalate with the end goal of him being able to succeed his father-in-law in power. The riots resulted in over a thousand Indonesian deaths, so while many Jakartans were convinced their governor would be elected, apprehension over the reaction to a clear rejection of Indonesia’s past was palpable.
Thankfully the announcement of Jokowi’s success has not spurred any popular riots. And while Prabowo withdrew from the race on the day of announcement – citing dissatisfaction with vote counting, declaring Jokowi’s election fraudulent and beginning a complicated and unprecedented legal situation for Indonesia – it seems the country has successfully and peacefully made its first transition between two democratically elected leaders. It’s a substantial achievement when considering the country’s history as well as the troubles taking place in nearby Asian states.
But the holding of breath that took place ahead of Jokowi’s success is unlikely to stop. Untried on a national scale, Jokowi will have a tough and delicate job ahead of him when sworn in this October. Already breaking with tradition by asking for public opinion in the appointment of his cabinet, Jokowi will be heading up a minority in Indonesia’s government. But he appears dedicated to reversing the cronyism and corruption that continues to play a role in the current Indonesian administration. Jokowi will have to transform the way his country’s entire government operates before the street-level changes he is known for will be felt.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.