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Joko Widodo is Indonesia's Reformist President-Elect

Indonesia’s reformist president-elect, Joko Widodo, already faces challenges after being declared the winner late Tuesday night. His rival, Prabowo Subianto, plans to file an appeal alleging widespread fraud in the bitterly fought race.
Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla

Indonesia’s reformist president-elect Joko Widodo faces his first challenge less than 24 hours after being officially declared the winner late Tuesday night as rival Prabowo Subianto announced plans to file an appeal with the nation’s Constitutional Court alleging widespread fraud in the bitterly fought race.

It’s the first sign of Prabowo’s post-election plan after he railed against the nation’s elections commission on Tuesday, accusing officials of ignoring what he called evidence of “massive” and “systemic” election fraud in a televised meltdown. He lost the election to Joko, the popular governor of the Indonesian capital who rose from the slums of Solo, Central Java, to hold the highest office in the world’s third-largest democracy with a populist platform and everyman image.


Jokowi, as he is popularly known, won 53.15 percent of the vote in a hard-fought election. It’s a watershed moment for Indonesia—a country that only 16 years ago emerged from decades of autocratic rule to become the region’s strongest democracy. Jokowi is among a new breed of down-to-earth leaders to rise above the system of entrenched, and increasingly out of touch, elites with ties to Suharto’s New Order regime.

“This is a victory for all Indonesian people,” Jokowi said in a televised victory speech late Tuesday night. “We, Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla, urge our brothers of the nation to return to our historic faith as a united nation, as one nation, as Indonesia.”

But weeks of bitter politicking and the continued refusal of Prabowo to accept the results have left some wondering if this announcement truly marks the end of the country’s dirtiest presidential race. Prabowo has consistently insisted that he won the presidential election—citing the findings of a small collection of dubious polling agencies bankrolled by his powerful political backers.

On Tuesday, he challenged the entire system in an angry televised speech, then withdrew from the elections process, pulling his observers from the elections commission’s headquarters in a final refusal to accept a loss in the race.

“We will withdraw from the ongoing process,” Prabowo said on Tuesday. “We are not willing to sacrifice the mandate handed to us by the people.”


The speech inspired confusion in the Indonesian capital as observers argued over whether Prabowo had withdrawn from the entire election, or just the commission’s final vote tally. On Wednesday, his campaign team clarified his statement, reopening the door to a Constitutional Court challenge.

“I think he genuinely doesn’t believe he’s lost it,” said Jacqueline Baker, an expert on Indonesian politics at the Australia National University. “I think Prabowo himself does not believe he’s lost it and he’s got these guys, you know this inner circle — what Alcoholics Anonymous call ‘enablers’ — just trying to keep this delusion going.”

The focus has now shifted to the nation’s graft-stained Constitutional Court — a legal body struggling to restore the public’s trust after its former chief justice received a life sentence in one of the country’s largest corruption scandals. But according to experts, the court challenge is little more than a desperate gambit by Prabowo, a three-time presidential loser with a dark human rights record.

Prabowo would have to convince the court with evidence of widespread voter fraud, a tall order in what shaped up to be the country’s most transparent presidential election to date. The elections commission uploaded scanned copies of more than 120 million votes to its website in an unprecedented commitment to open and fair elections. The scanned ballots, known in Indonesia as C1 forms, underwent intense scrutiny by an army of volunteers on social media.


“There was some maneuvering on the ground, with results manually changed, especially at the village and sub-district level,” said Marcus Mietzner, a researcher and expert on Indonesian politics at the Australia National University. “But the operation launched by made such manipulations transparent, and they were subsequently corrected. In addition, Prabowo’s allies on the ground were reluctant to go all out for their candidate, knowing that he had lost.”

Prabowo trails Jokowi by some 8 million votes in the race. While Indonesia’s elections have always struggled with a level of vote buying and manipulation by regional elections officials, the level of oversight in the presidential race makes even the existence of even 4 million fraudulent votes a remote possibility, according to political experts.

“My gut feeling is that actually Prabowo himself and his people (were) kind of counting on ‘money politics’ inside the KPU (the elections commission) itself,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University. “Everyone knows the KPU is corrupt, (but) the KPU was under tremendous pressure, because they knew no one trusted them anyways, so they decided to put the C1s on the website.

“That, I think, is what saved the election… that is what saved Jokowi in the election. His volunteers looked at everything.”

The court challenge may shape up to be, at this point, little more than the final rumblings of the Prabowo campaign as his coalition of political parties already shows signs of splitting at the seams. But Prabowo is no stranger to defeat. He grew up in exile after his family participated in a botched revolt against then-president Sukarno. He rose through the ranks of the Indonesian military before being discharged over the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists during the fall of the New Order in 1998. He returned from self-imposed exile in Jordan, built a political party with his brother from scratch only to lose three consecutive presidential elections.

“I’m not going to count Prabowo out yet,” Sulaiman said. “I mean people have been counting him out since 1998. A couple of months ago, I predicted that he was going to be a major force and give Jokowi a run for his money and everyone laughed at me, but I was right. He almost managed to beat Jokowi.

“He’s a smart guy. Give him a year or so and he will be back on his feet and fighting again.”