University of Chicago

What the Election Result Dispute Means for Indonesian Democracy by Jenny W. Xiao

Early results of the 2019 Indonesian elections indicate that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has secured a second term in office. A quick vote count on April 17 shows that Widodo won 55% of the vote, while his challenger, former army general Prabowo Subianto, received around 44%. However, more than two weeks later, Prabowo still refuses to acknowledge defeat. He denounces survey institutions as “liars” and continues to proclaim victory. Pro-democracy observers are relieved that the relatively liberal Jokowi, rather than his Islamic hardliner opponent prevailed in the presidential race. But the mere fact that Prabowo disputes the election results is a warning sign for Indonesian democracy.

21 years after the end of the Suharto dictatorship, Indonesia seemed to be on the path towards democratic consolidation. In 1998, the Reformasi led to the downfall of the Suharto “New Order” regime, which lasted for over three decades. Student-led mass protests forced then-president Suharto to step down and sparked Indonesia’s democratic transition. Since then, Indonesia has held four direct presidential elections, in 2004, 2009, 2014, and again in 2019. Unlike elections in many other transitory democracies, elections in Indonesia have been quite free and fair. The election of Jokowi in 2014 was particularly promising, as he defeated Prabowo, a wealthy oligarch and Suharto’s former son-in-law. He became the first post-Suharto president who did not come from the political establishment. From a Dahlsian perspective, his victory seems to indicate an increase in political contestation and an improvement in the quality of Indonesian democracy.

Considering such positive developments, it is quite surprising that Prabowo should dispute the 2019 election results, as such a move is a major violation of democratic norms. Despite credible polling data showing that Jokowi leads by double digits, Prabowo claimed victory immediately after the ballots closed based on a count by his team, which showed that he won 62% of the votes. He and his campaign went on to assert that the vote was distorted by “massive fraud,” accusing the General Elections Commission of colluding with the Jokowi government and tampering with voter lists. However, the independent Elections Commission soon dismissed the accusations and credible pollsters, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Poltracking Indonesia, Indikator, and Indo Barometer, uniformly show Widodo winning an estimated 55% of the votes.

This is not the first time that Prabowo objected to election results—he acted exactly the same when he lost to Widodo in the 2014 presidential election. According to political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, a necessary condition for democratic consolidation is that major political actors abide by democratic norms. One essential norm for democratic contestation is that the loser accepts electoral defeat and acknowledge the legitimacy of the election. By clinging on to claiming victory, Prabowo casts a shadow over the election’s results and undermines the legitimacy of the future government.

However, Prabowo’s behavior should be seen as more of a symptom than a cause of democratic backsliding in Indonesia. In fact, experts on Indonesian politics, such as Edward Aspinall and David Scott, generally agree that democratic retreat began in Yudhoyono’s second term (2009-14) and accelerated after Jokowi came into power in 2014. Currently, the Economist Intelligence Unit defines Indonesia as a “flawed democracy,” but the country risks further sliding into what Larry Diamond terms a “hybrid regime.”

One main source of democratic decline is the rise of religious intolerance, which has led to a gradual erosion of minority rights and personal freedoms. The most prominent example is the 2017 religious mobilization against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok,” a Chinese Christian, for “insulting the Quran.” In the same year, the Jokowi administration issued a regulation granting authorities power to outlaw any organization that opposes the official ideology of Pancasila, “national unity.” An instance of executive aggrandizement, the action seems to fit into Nancy’s Bermeo’s account of democratic backsliding: although military coups and election frauds are becoming rarer, subtle forms of democratic erosion persist. The rising ascendancy of religious conservativism has become a major cause of such erosion.

Religious tensions are made worse with economic inequality. In terms of wealth, Indonesia is the six most unequal country in the world. Such inequality itself should be a major concern for Indonesian democracy, as scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have found that economic disparity undermines democratic consolidation. To make matters worse, the Chinese Indonesian community controls a disproportionate amount of economic power. As a result, Prabowo combines hostility towards the rich business class with religious intolerance and preaches to the conservative Muslim community that they are “disenfranchised” by the Chinese elite. The Prabowo campaign also portrayed Jokowi as an “enemy of Islam,” a Catholic, and a “secret Communist.” By demonizing his opponent and ethnic minorities, Prabowo defines “the people” in a very exclusive manner and claims that only he represents “the people.” Based on political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller’s definition, Prabowo’s anti-elitist and anti-pluralist rhetoric should qualify him as a populist.

The official results of the 2019 Indonesian elections will not be released until May. It remains to be seen how Prabowo will react to the official proof. What is certain is that by disregarding democratic norms and exploiting sectarian hostility, Prabowo has already undermined Indonesian democracy. More concerning is the rise of religious intolerance and economic inequality. These structural trends make it very difficult for the Indonesians to maintain their democracy regardless of who they elect in 2019.

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