The 2014 Indonesian presidential election has been remarkable. Not only in comparison to the country’s long history of dictatorship that crumbled less than two decades ago, but also to democratic processes worldwide.
Voting is not compulsory in Indonesia. Yet volunteer groups took leading roles in making the election a spectacular success. Elsewhere coercion remains a feature in more than a few of the so-called “liberal” democratic countries, where elections at home are mandatory by law or held in other countries at gunpoint.
Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president elect, is a paradox. Better known as Jokowi, he stands out as extraordinary among politicians in Indonesia and beyond, for being so ordinary (and comfortably so) in appearance, speech and background. Much has been written about him and his qualities. So let me move on to focus on others that made him president of the “world’s third-largest democracy”.
Victory of ordinary citizens
Jokowi’s success is hugely a result of the spontaneous popular support from largely non-organised groups of ordinary Indonesians. They converged in various forms, with a high degree of fluidity. Famous artists and public intellectuals form parts of it, but the majority are everyday commoners.
I am reluctant to call this movement “people’s power”. This term is narrowly associated with street mobilisation, masculine force and martyrs of violence, following the EDSA revolutions in Manila decades ago, and more recently the pro-royalist rallies in Bangkok.
Like Jokowi, his supporters are inclined to soft power, such as puns, visual arts and music. Women are reportedly overrepresented. Mostly apolitical in their daily lives, they belong to none of the contesting political parties. Their work overshadowed the political machinery in ensuring Jokowi’s victory.
International observers' shortcomings
Most international commentators have overlooked or underestimated the critical force behind Indonesia’s historic moment. They focused narrowly on Jokowi and his official team or on Prabowo. Elite-centric analyses represent the easiest type of investigation for outsiders with no or limited language mastery and living experience in the country.
Rarely attempted, but more compelling than ever before, is a serious look at the millions of largely nameless and unorganised people who brought Jokowi to the presidency.
As a candidate, Jokowi had limited resources and interest to mobilise the masses to support him. From early on his supporters impatiently pressed him to run for president. In contrast to the flow of the familiar “money politics”, individual citizens proudly published bank slips on social media, showing off their tiny share of donations to Jokowi’s election campaign.
Jakarta’s pro-Jokowi July 5 concert attracted over 100,000 people. Unpaid volunteers with no political party affiliation designed and ran the event.
Likewise, a leading spearhead in monitoring and legitimising the vote counting outside the state apparatus was Kawal Pemilu. It is a free online service that belongs to a small group of young individual volunteers who were strangers before voting day.
Causes and consequences
Two questions follow. What brought the emergence of these forceful masses? What benefits might these masses enjoy once Jokowi has become their president?
One answer to the first question is already suggested above: Jokowi personifies, and thus attracts, millions of his compatriots who have commonly endured decades of political abuse by the political elite. A second factor strengthened it, namely the widespread apprehension of a possible return of New Order authoritarianism if Prabowo won the election. But both factors only explain the interest, not the capacity of the masses to assert their will.
To understand their capacity, some credit is due to the service of social media, as attested to by Kawal Pemilu and the protest of Indonesian migrant workers on voting day in Hong Kong. More important is the serious and protracted intra-elite rivalry that has preoccupied members of the old regime. They will not go away with the ascendancy of Jokowi.
Until the surviving elite of the old regime resolves its internal conflict, the general population enjoys an extra space to assert their aspirations. Thus, a rather sombre answer to the second question above.
Unless adequately nurtured and consolidated institutionally in a timely way, the energy and support of Jokowi’s supporters will soon dissipate after his presidential inauguration. Opportunities exist, but there is no guarantee that Indonesia’s democratic moments will last long or flourish.
On paper, analysts often speak of democracy as categories that distinguish countries as democratic or non-democratic. In the real and messy world, democracy is best understood as moments or momentary qualities; some being more spectacular in some place than elsewhere, but only for some time.