By: Philip Bowring

It was a sad end to a remarkably well run and peaceful election involving  190 million eligible voters spread over 17,000 islands for a multitude of posts ranging from president to legislators and city and local officials. About six people died in protests on May 21-22 in demonstrations and a riot in central Jakarta which followed the official announcement of the election result.

These events showed up two problems which continue to run counter to the maturing of Indonesia’s efforts at both democratization and decentralization since the fall of President Suharto during the 1998 Asian economic crisis.

The first was the unwillingness of the defeated candidate for president, Prabowo Subianto, to accept a result which was widely viewed as a fair poll with the official result also coming with 1% of unofficial results announced by various independent polling organizations immediately after the vote.

Although some parties aligned with Prabowo chose not to challenge the result, Prabowo was able to count on harder line Muslim groups to come out in support of his claims. Initially a few thousand staged a late night demonstration outside the Election Commission in central Jakarta which was peaceful enough, as Prabowo had requested. However, later another group estimated at 300, appeared who were intent on violence, armed with firecrackers and Molotov cocktails, burning cars and even setting alight a police dormitory.

The police asserted they had no live ammunition and used only tear gas and water cannon. They arrested more 300 among who they said were members of an Islamist group which had been involved in sending fighters to Syria. They also said they had seized firearms suspected of causing casualties which could be blamed on the police. They also seized an ambulance belonging to Gerindra, Prabowo’s party, which was said to be carrying stones, money and leaflets.

It remains unclear if the groups bent on violence were Islamist extremists trying to use the occasion to create disorder or were thugs paid by those who other political purposes.

As it was, government and opposition had had plenty of time to organize for the occasion, with police imposing some restrictions on groups trying to enter Jakarta for the purpose and closing access to Whats App and other social media during the riots. There had also been earlier arrests of some connected to extremist Muslim groups.

The city was back to normal within 24 hours but further demonstrations were promised. The events were disturbing following an election which though an easy victory for the president and his supporting parties was, for the first time, seen primarily to be have been about Islam. Despite a scant record of piety and a partly Christian family background and his links to the Suharto clan (his former wife is Suharto’s daughter) Prabowo’s main appeal was to conservative Islam. Indeed he did well in the traditionally fervently Muslim West Java, Sumatra and parts of Sulawesi.  

Although Jokowi was popular nationally, with a 70 percent approval rating, he only won 55.5 percent of the vote. It would have likely been much closer but for his perceived need to bring in the head of the traditionalist Javanese Muslim Nahdlatul Ulama, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential candidate. Pessimists see in this a repetition of the threat of national break-up seen in the 1950s Darul Islam movement which sought an Islamic state and controlled much of West Java, and parts of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Others see the result as showing the limits of the appeal to sectarianism in other parts of the country, notably East and Central Java.

However there is little doubt that the notion of Indonesia as a plural and liberal state based on Pancasila and with equal status for all other religions has everywhere been under pressure from those claiming to represent the Muslim majority. Decentralization, though mostly beneficial, has enabled local governments to impose laws and rules which are contrary to the spirit of Pancasila and even to the Constitution. There has been a gradual increase in social pressures on women to wear the hijab, for observation of fasting and other outward symbols rather than leave such matters to individual choice. The curious, almost demeaning, following of Arab ways of dress and mosque design now goes so far as to see expensive and alien dates as a suitable way of breaking the fast. 

Such trends distance many Muslims from the non-Muslim minorities and hence in the long run threaten national cohesion and probably also result in poor economic performance as educational attainments fall further behind regional norms. Reactionary patriarchal religious views are also holding back the role of women in the economy and society in contrast to most of the rest of southeast Asia.

With Jokowi now re-elected there are hopes for more decisive government, less influence from coalition parties more concerned with the spoils office and more willing to resist Islamist inroads and reassert Pancasila and “unity in diversity” as the bedrock of the state. On the other there are concerns that, like that of his predecessor, Jokowi’s will be a lame duck government as politicians immediately start to maneuver for the succession in 2024, with the trappings of religious orthodoxy, however hypocritical, to the fore, and distancing Indonesia further from its mostly non-Muslim  neighbors, China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.