Presidential Elections in Indonesia

A Vote for Security and Stability

The challengers to incumbent President Yudhoyono have clearly underestimated his popularity. They have failed to impress the public with their colourless public appearances and vague party programmes. By Christina Schott

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (photo: AP)
Indonesian President Yudhoyono already achieved more than the necessary 50% of the vote in the first round of elections, leaving his challengers Sukarnoputri and Kalla far behind

​​ "Lanjutkan!" – "continue!" shouted the crowds cheering on incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during election events over the past few weeks.

And, in all probability, that is exactly what he will do. According to projections, Yudhoyono, called SBY for short, has already won the first round of the presidential elections held on July 8. Only a day previous, various polls had predicted that none of the three candidates would receive more than 50 percent of the vote, leading to a run-off election in September.

Yet, as counting began after polling stations closed, it appeared as if SBY and his vice presidential candidate Boediono attracted around 60 percent of the electorate, while former President Megawati Soekarnoputri and her vice presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto only attracted a mere 30 percent.

Incumbent Vice President Jusuf Kalla and his partner Wiranto were left far behind with less than ten percent of the vote. Since even the polling institutes financed by the challengers have published similar results, there doesn't seem to be much room to alter the figures. Nonetheless, Prabowo as well as Kalla cast doubt on the validity of the projections and are waiting for the final vote count. This won't be completed, however, until the end of July.

Fair and peaceful elections

Hardly any observers, by contrast, doubt Yudhoyono's victory. Despite numerous organisational hitches and harsh criticism by the losers, the second direct presidential elections in the world's third largest democracy were, to the greatest possible extent, conducted in a free and peaceful manner.

SBY's Democratic Party had already won the parliamentary election in April as the country's strongest party, while the previously largest parties – Golkar, Suharto's former party, under its Chairman Jusuf Kalla and opposition party PDI-P with Megawati Soekarnoputri at the helm – both registered sharp losses.

Megawati Sukarnoputri (photo: dpa)
Lost in the political wilderness: since her great victory in 1999, Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDIP) have increasingly lost popularity

​​ Clearly, the challengers had greatly underestimated the popularity of their opponent. Neither Megawati nor Jusuf Kalla managed to counter the incumbent president with a substantial election promise either during their colourless performances in boring television debates or in their vague party programmes.

Critics of Yudhoyono have often characterized him as being too indecisive and lacking a definable image. Although he didn't fulfil all of his election promises from 2004, the former general does have some decisive successes to show. Under his government, not only was a peace agreement reached in the ending the civil war in Aceh province, but the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for a series of bomb attacks in Jakarta and the holiday resort island of Bali, was also crushed.

In addition, SBY has intensified the fight against the country's rampant corruption and has taken action against high-ranking officials, even against his own son's father-in-law. Last, but not least, the country's economic situation has stabilized under his leadership, so that despite the global financial crisis, Indonesia is one of the few countries with an economic growth rate of more than four percent.

Need for security and stability

The credit for some of these achievements has also been claimed by Jusuf Kalla, the still incumbent vice president, yet the successful entrepreneur evidently could not convince a majority of the population of his political abilities. With the re-election of Yudhoyono, Indonesians demonstrated their desire for security and stability – something that the crisis-stricken country urgently needs.

Election day in Jakarta, Indonesia (photo: AP)
With the re-election of Yudhoyono, Indonesians have chosen security and stability – something that the crisis-stricken country urgently needs, writes Schott

​​ In his choice of new deputy, SBY also showed a good deal of political acumen. Although he has formed a coalition in parliament with the four large Islamic parties, he picked as vice presidential candidate the independent economic expert Boediono, who had served as finance minister under Megawati and most recently was head of the Indonesian Central Bank.

The president has therefore brought to his side not only one of the few high-ranking officials not previously touched by a corruption scandal, but has also avoided allying himself with a more awkward running mate, such as the Chairman of the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), who certainly would have demanded greater concessions to his strict Islamic agenda.

Megawati and Jusuf Kalla managed to win over the former generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, who are both known more for their human rights abuses and personal enrichment than political successes. It proved to be a choice that did not sufficiently engender public approval.

As they couldn't attack Yudhoyono in the areas of foreign or economic policy, his opponents focused on the issue of Islam. A member of Kalla's Golkar Party published a pamphlet in which Boediono's wife was falsely described as a Catholic. The wives of both Kalla and Wiranto made a point of appearing at every election rally wearing a headscarf.

Islam as an election issue

On many election posters, the veiled wives were portrayed even larger than the candidates themselves. Megawati, who otherwise never wears a headscarf, could be frequently observed donning the Islamic head covering. Yet, this strategy also failed to have a decisive effect – not surprisingly, considering that Yudhoyono and Boediono had long since enjoyed the support of the leadership of the Islamic parties.

These parties, in turn, are dependent on their participation in the governing coalition in order to maintain a measure of political influence in this country with the world's largest Muslim population.

The loss of support experienced by the Islamic parties was perhaps the greatest surprise in this super election year. Whereas in 2004, they enjoyed 38 percent of all seats in parliament, the four strongest Islamic parties only attracted a total of around 25 percent of all votes in the April election. The PKS, in particular, had expected a large increase in their share of the vote.

The fact that many voters chose nationalist instead of Islamic parties does not mean that Islam no longer plays a decisive role in Indonesian politics. Instead, it is much more the case that the large nationalist parties have incorporated many Islamic issues into their agenda to make Muslim voters feel more comfortable.

The controversial anti-pornography law

As such, SBY made many concessions to his future coalition partners in the run-up to the election campaign, including the passage of an extremely controversial anti-pornography law that Islamic parties had been pushing for years. It is still not clear whether the newly re-elected president promised his partners even more election presents.

The increasing lack of identity among the nationalist parties could offer the Islamic parties a new opportunity in five years. After two terms in office, SBY is prevented from standing again in 2014. Until now, the Democratic Party has based its support solely on the popularity of SBY and would have to completely restructure itself to remain in government.

Golkar and the PDI-P only have a future if they completely replace their leadership. If the Islamic parties properly exploit their potential, especially in the areas of social commitment and close ties to the people, then they could emerge after the SBY era as the next winners.

Christina Schott

© 2009

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