An Indonesian voter at a pooling station during local elections held in June, 2018 Photo: AFP Forum/ Aditya Irawan
An Indonesian voter at a pooling station during local elections held in June, 2018 Photo: AFP Forum/ Aditya Irawan

By far the most surprising outcome of Indonesia’s latest round of local elections was the mayoralty “race” in the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, where recalcitrant voters ensured that sole candidate Munafri Arifuddin was beaten by what is colloquially known as kotak kosong, an empty box.

According to quick count returns, Arifuddin failed to win 50% of the vote, as required to in order to take office. The result has brought ringing humiliation down on his uncle, Vice President Jusuf Kalla and the coalition of nine of the country’s 10 parties that supported him.

Under National Commission Election (KPU) rules, if the official count confirms the result, a re-election can only be held again in 2020 during the next round of nationwide polls for governors, mayors and district chiefs, leaving a temporary appointee in charge for the next two years.

For Australian electoral expert Kevin Evans, the Makassar result was the stunning highlight of the nationwide regional polls and a telling demonstration that while the political and economic elite can get together to literally stage an election, voters these days don’t always simply line up and endorse the process.

“The implications could be very important,” says Evans, who maintains an Indonesian election website and has written a book on the country’s electoral history. “It could happen anywhere and remember, Makassar is bigger than some small provinces.”

An Indonesian casts his ballot during voting in elections at a polling station in Gowa, South Sulawesi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Yusuf Ahmad

Arifuddin was not the only casualty of a seeming backlash against dynastic politics, with a daughter and two sons all failing to succeed their fathers as governors of West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and South Sumatra. Interestingly, district chiefs and mayors rose to province heads in eight of the 17 elections.

“The problem is the old boy networks do not always translate to vote the way they did a generation ago,” says Evans. “They may start their campaigns with an ego and a sense of self-importance, but they start to falter when the rubber hits the road of real polling.”

One senior Sulawesi-born politician with close ties to Kalla’s Golkar Party saw the result — and the victory of new South Sulawesi Governor Nurdin Abdullah — as a defeat for the entire Kalla clan, saying Makassar voters were now rejecting its decades-old hold over local politics powered by a business network built on car dealerships, power plants and trading.

“Kalla,” he says, “has to know when to exit the game” — one that had made him a major player in Indonesian politics by serving as vice president with both current leader Joko Widodo and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Kalla also ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2009.

Political sources say while Arifuddin is quiet and unassuming with an apparently clean record, his only qualification for the post was his marriage to the daughter of Kalla’s brother-in-law, tycoon Aksa Mahmud, 72, owner of the Bosowa Corp, the other dominant Makassar family with interests in cement, air-bridges, toll roads and construction.

A recent Constitutional Court decision ruled out any chance of the 76-year-old Kalla running for another vice presidential term with Widodo, but watching his nephew fall short in his own hometown may have finally convinced the Golkar luminary to bring an end to a political career stretching back three decades.

Indonesian Vice president Jusuf Kalla (R) show his inked finger after voting in a file photo. AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Meeting with foreign reporters a day after the election, Kalla would only point out he didn’t have the party’s support for a run at the presidency himself. He also mentioned his age, but then in the same breath laughingly brought up the comeback of 92-year-old Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad.

The Makassar result was sweet revenge for incumbent mayor Mohammad “Danny” Pomanto, 54, and his deputy, Indira Mulyasari, both of whem were disqualified from seeking a second term last April after the Supreme Court ruled they had erred in distributing 6,000 smartphones to community leaders across Indonesia’s seventh biggest city of 1.5 million people.

A popular Makassar-born engineer, Pomanto wanted to develop a US$900,000 App-based surveillance system in which the citywide network of local officials would use the phones to report suspicious activity in a bustling trading port that has often served as a crossroads for Islamic extremists.

Terrorism and its impact on investment is a worrying issue, given Makassar’s growth rate has consistently exceeded the national average since 2014, when it was recorded at 9.2%; Sulawesi as a whole grew by 7% in 2017, ahead of Java and all the other main islands by a substantial margin.

An Indonesian policeman stands guard while officials load ballot boxes in Bau-bau, Southeast Sulawesi in a file photo. AFP/Arfah Yusuf 

New governor Abdullah, an agricultural economist and former district head of Bantaeng, south of Makassar, beat out three rivals, including Golkar’s Nurdin Halid, who had left his powerful position as party executive director to run in a race that normally he would have been given a good chance of winning.

Pre-election polls had him winning 17% of the vote, trailing Abdullah on 31% and Ichsan Yasin Limpo on 19.6%. In the end, Abdullah outperformed all the surveys, winning 42-44% of the vote in three different quick counts, well ahead of the second-placed Halid on 26-28%.

Halid was a close associate of disgraced former Golkar leader and parliamentary speaker Setya Novanto, who was jailed for 15 years in April after being found guilty of masterminding the US$173 million electronic identity card rip-off, perhaps Indonesia’s most egregious ever corruption case.

The Sulawesi politician may have seen the writing on the wall long before Novanto was replaced as Golkar chairman in December by Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 55, who made it clear he would be cleaning house once he had established himself in the party’s leadership.

But what continued to haunt Halid was his role in a string of past corruption cases and his reputation as an enforcer, which caused widespread resentment in party ranks – as it did when he ran the graft-ridden Football Association of Indonesia from jail in the early 2000s.