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Indonesia: Prabowo's last stand

The Indonesian Constitutional Court upholds election results, securing Jokowi's presidency.

Last updated: 22 Aug 2014 13:20
Zarina Banu

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.
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A supporter holds a portrait of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during a protest near the Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia [AP]

The curtain has drawn to a close on Prabowo Subianto's bid for the Indonesian presidency. On August 21, the Constitutional Court unanimously struck down Prabowo's case in which he claimed massive fraud and demanded that the results of the July 22 election be overturned. On the day of the court's decision, clashes broke out between Prabowo supporters and police, who fired tear gas outside the courthouse. The highly anticipated ruling paves the way for the October inauguration of victor Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.

Prabowo's case relied on weak evidence. For weeks, judges had to listen to lawyers making long speeches and witnesses who failed to corroborate their stories. In one case a witness even pointed to a newspaper clipping as proof of vote rigging.

The Constitutional Court was itself in the dock and its reputation on the line with the case. In June, former Chief Justice Akil Mochtar was found guilty of taking $5m in bribes to influence rulings and subsequently jailed for life. Constitutional Court Chairman Hamdan Zoelva knew he had to deliver what was widely considered a no-brainer of a verdict or face a furious backlash. The ruling brings redemption for the court and places democratic institutions in Indonesia on a firmer footing.

Another high-profile pillar of Indonesian democracy in recent weeks has been the General Elections Commission (KPU). The KPU, came under fire for allowing voter fraud to take place during the nationwide vote. International observers had also given the thumbs up to the way the election was conducted. But by swiftly announcing the result and sticking to its decision, the KPU was able to claw back some respectability.

Indonesia backs president-elect amid protests

The KPU has taken a long time to come of age. It was set up in 1999 during the Reformasi - the period of reform that followed President Suharto's fall. Like the Constitutional Court, it formed as independent body and was answerable only to a public fed up with a corrupt system.

It was the spectre of post-Suharto-style chaos that Prabowo exploited to his own ends during the presidential campaign. A former army general, Prabowo promoted himself as a decisive leader, a strongman who would rally the nation against so-called foreign influence. He was prone to dramatic tactics, and once rode into a stadium on a horse for a campaign rally.

Leading expert in Indonesian affairs Professor Vedi Hadiz of Murdoch University in Australia said, "The speculation that Prabowo would use thuggery and intimidation weren't played out. There were fears of his lingering influence in the military, fears of links to paramilitary forces. These fears were unfounded." But in the end, Prabowo's rearguard attack was insufficient to clinch the vote. A substantial gap of 8.5 million votes stood between the two challengers in the final count, a figure with which most people would have found hard to argue.

Wiping out corruption

A squeaky clean track record and engagement with the poor propelled Jokowi to power, but as president, he will be judged for his abilities to manage key issues like corruption. This is of paramount importance to resolving Indonesia's troubles, says Assistant Professor Nawab Osman of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "If he can tackle that successfully, then Indonesia would be regarded as a successful Muslim democracy."

Transparency International ranks Indonesia 114 out of 177 countries surveyed for perceptions of abuse of power and bribery. Corruption has worsened since decentralisation of power in the late 1990s, with provincial officials taking advantage of their autonomy from Jakarta to cosy up to local interests. Ironically, it is this same devolution of authority that has allowed Jokowi to rise from Surakarta mayor to international prominence.

Jokowi will have to work closely with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), another fixture in Indonesia's burgeoning democracy, to enact his anti-corruption drive. The KPK operates in its own ecosystem, with powers to investigate and prosecute outside the judiciary and police. Both are considered highly corrupt and many are demanding a shake-up.

With so much hope pinned on Jokowi, expectations are running feverishly high and so disappointment will come easily. He has already drawn ire for including a controversial figure in his power transition team. Hadiz said, "There are a lot of liberal actors who have been appalled at the appointment of General Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, who has been accused of being involved in a massacre in 1980s in Lampung, and implicated in the case of activist Munir [Said Thalib]."

In 1989, Hendropriyono was a military commander in Lampung Province during a bloody crackdown on civilians. He also headed the State Intelligence Agency when well-known human rights activist Munir died from arsenic poisoning during a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. Although Hendopriyono's deputy was indicted and later acquitted in the case, a cloud of suspicion still hangs over the former intelligence chief. Jokowi defended his hiring judgment, saying no charges were ever brought against Hendropriyono. Indonesia is full of talented professionals, so choosing one with such a blemished background seems an odd choice at such an important time.

The point is that no one, especially a man of humble roots, gets to be president in Indonesia without skillful political manipulation. The relationship with his main backer, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, is often compared to the dynamic between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi: one being a popular public figure hoisted to the top of the food chain by the other, an unelectable leader. Hendropriyono is a well-known friend of Megawati and many speculated his appointment was made to appease her.

As Hadiz maintains, it would be wrong to see Jokowi as representing a complete break with Indonesia's oligarchy. He has adroitly navigated his way around Indonesia's political elite and will continue to do so as president. He will need these same skills to knock together the Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (the party he represents) into a ruling coalition and to survive the years ahead.

But manoeuvring won't be enough. His popularity with the electorate rests on accelerating Indonesia's economic growth. For this, he will need to foster shared wealth, boost infrastructure, and build a sound financial system. If he pulls this off he will remain popular and anchor his legitimacy. There's no doubt Jokowi has undertaken a challenging mission, but Indonesia's tens of millions of poor will be hoping he can make it possible.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Follow her on Twitter: @ZarinaBanu1

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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