Playing the wrong cards at the Indonesian election

THE final result of the Indonesian presidential election will not be known for some time yet, and despite the consensus among most exit polls that place the Jokowi-Kalla team ahead, both sides are claiming victory.

THE final result of the Indonesian presidential election will not be known for some time yet, and despite the consensus among most exit polls that place the Jokowi-Kalla team ahead, both sides are claiming victory. This was, by all accounts, a hard-fought campaign. It was different from the previous campaigns Indonesia has seen, where there were more than two contesting pairs of candidates. It was also different in that it was characterised by extensive, and, in some instances, potentially dangerous, use of “black campaign” methods. During the final stages, accusations of a personal nature were levelled against Mr Joko Widodo in particular.

Notwithstanding the advances that Indonesia has made since the late 1990s, and the extent to which democratic norms and praxis have begun to settle in the country, there have also been some troubling developments.

On the positive side, it cannot be denied that in the areas of accountability, transparency and routine democratic norms, Indonesia has moved on significantly over the years. Even as the election campaign was going on, prominent cases of corruption, abuse of power and political violence were routinely being brought to court, discussed at the Corruption Eradication Commission and digested by the media and the public at large. Those who are familiar with the old ways would note that this is almost a world apart from the Indonesia that they knew in the 1970s and 1980s.

Caught in the anti-corruption dragnet were politicians, celebrities, public figures and personalities whose political connections and celebrity status did not save them from the glare of media and official inquiry.

However, while these advances have been made – and can be seen by all – the election campaign also witnessed the return of “black campaigning”. This refers to the subtle and at times not-too-subtle art of negative campaigning against one’s political opponent. It was carried out by many means, ranging from wild SMS campaigns, poison-pen letters and pamphlets, to a heated virtual war on the Internet.

The latter was a war fought in the shadows, waged by cyber activists who often hid behind the cloak of anonymity provided by the Internet. And in that shadowy world where slurs and accusations could be hurled with impunity, nobody was spared – not least the sensitivities of the public at large.

While such forms of “black campaigning” are hardly new, and not even unique to Indonesia, what was worrisome for many analysts was the way in which the campaign touched a raw nerve among many in the country. Particularly worrying was the manner in which one presidential candidate was accused of being a closet Christian, of Chinese ethnic origin and even a Communist sympathiser.

Those with an understanding of Indonesia’s postcolonial history would be able to appreciate the gravity of these allegations and recognise that they are morally and ideologically loaded.

That a candidate could be labelled a closet Christian is in itself a potentially explosive allegation in present-day Indonesia, where right-wing ethno-nationalist forces are claiming a place at the centre of the nation’s public domain.

It comes at a time when Indonesia has witnessed a string of attacks on churches, the most recent being the attack in late May on a church in the Sleman area near Yogyakarta, just as the candidates had begun their campaign. It also comes at a time when ex-militants and radical leaders like Jaafar Umar Tholib – head of the former Laskar Jihad group – have declared a “holy war” against cultural and religious pluralism in the country.

The attacks targeted at ethnic and ideological minority groups in Indonesia today have to be put in a wider historical context. The memory of the near-total extermination of the Indonesian Communist Party (1965) and the race riots in the 1970s and most recently in May-June 1998 is still fresh.

No Indonesian today would fail to recognise and understand the darker warnings that were contained in these allegations. And though they were directed towards one candidate in particular, the shock factor was felt by thousands of others.

Local activists and analysts I spoke to expressed their concern about these developments and opined that this was a case of taking political campaigning one step too far, akin to bringing a burning match precariously close to a gunpowder keg.

Whatever the final outcome of the election, Indonesians will soon have a new president and a new government. The challenges that Indonesia as a whole will face are many, and most of them are of a pragmatic, mundane and material nature. They deal with its energy needs, the preservation of its natural resources, the expansion of its logistic and communicative infrastructure, the improvement of its health and education system, and delivering services to the public at large.

These are real problems that require rational explanations and programmes, and are not to be seen through the myopic lens of race or religion. For Indonesia’s sake, and for the sake of the region as a whole, one hopes the next government of Indonesia will tackle these issues with the interests of the nation as a whole at heart.

The wrong cards – namely the racial card and the religious card – were played during this election campaign; but neither of these holds the key to Indonesia’s success and stability in the future.

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.