Supporters of Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto attend a rally for the declaration of his victory in the 2019 Presidential election in Jakarta, April 19, 2019. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP Forum / Eko Siswono Toyudho

While it may have given President Joko Widodo a significantly larger majority than in the last race in 2014, Indonesia’s April 17 presidential election has put the archipelago’s religious and ethnic divides into much sharper and worrying relief.

It also partly explains why opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, the 67-year-old scion of a blue-blood family groomed to be president from childhood, has reacted so badly to losing a second election he seemed convinced he had in the bag.

More than anything, the vote shows a greater polarization between the Javanese heartland and eastern Indonesia’s minority enclaves on one side, and religiously conservative West Java and the Muslim-dominated islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan on the other.

Widodo will now have his work cut out trying to resolve the country’s growing ethnic and religious differences that will continue to be played out in the 575-seat Parliament, where his ruling coalition will have a smaller majority, and in society as a whole.

Prabowo appears to have prevailed in 18 of 34 provinces, though his misfortune lies in the fact that many of them are in lightly populated regions with an insufficient volume of votes to right the demographic imbalance with Java, the nation’s most populous island.

Certainly, without a massive flow of votes from Central and East Java and the special region of Jogjakarta, a whopping 10-12% more than in 2014, Widodo may have been struggling to get his nose in front as constituents on the big outlying islands weighed in against him.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) arrives for a press conference after the country’s presidential and legislative elections on April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

Despite every quick count giving Widodo 55-45% of the vote, Prabowo insists the pollsters have been manipulating their figures and that his own surveys put him ahead by more than 60%. “They lie so much, they should be doing a survey of penguins in Antarctica,” he grumbled last week.

Prabowo’s intemperate reaction clearly compelled Widodo to declare victory ahead of time after saying that any announcement or celebration should wait until after the National Election Commission (KPU) completes its final vote count.

Insiders and other sources say Prabowo’s stubborn refusal to accept defeat led to an election night falling out with popular running mate Sandiaga Uno, 49, who was notably absent at Prabowo’s first two press conferences, supposedly because of hiccups.

Downcast and unsmiling, Uno only joined the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) leader at a third press briefing after rumors had spread that he was heading for the United States this week to avoid being drawn into an unseemly post-election mess that would tarnish his image.

Prabowo may have miscalculated the strength of support Widodo received from the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in exchange for him switching running mates from former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD to aging cleric Ma’ruf Amin, a NU stalwart.

Joined by the base of Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), influential NU clerics and Islamic boarding houses played a major role in giving the president as much as 77% of the vote in Central Java and 67% in East Java.

According to one exit poll, NU adherents favored Widodo by 56% to 44%, a far cry from 43% to 42% in 2014 when the 45 million-strong organization leaned towards Prabowo, particularly in East Java.

Province by province presidential vote percentages with 95.7% of the vote counted.  Source: CSIS/Cyrus Network

But while overpowering his rival there, the president failed to make a dent in Prabowo’s hold on Sundanese constituents in West Java and neighboring Banten, where he won 63% of the vote in a region that was once home to the rebellious Darul Islam movement.

Despite being born in Banten, Amin’s conservative credentials did nothing to sway the 212 Movement, the hard-line Islamic coalition which brought down Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, and, in doing so, raised widespread concern about Indonesia’s future as a secular state.

The fallout from the demise of Widodo’s ally clearly defined the election. Prabowo isn’t a devout Muslim, but he became the rallying point for those who either see the president as “un-Islamic” or believe some of the wild stories spread about him on social media.

Surprisingly, Widodo beat the odds by notching a narrow victory in Jakarta, where he had been expected to lose. In this case, he may have been saved by his infrastructure program, including the new Mass Trail Transit (MRT) system which strategically opened just before polling day.

In the minority were others who refused to support Widodo for reasons ranging from their belief he has been bad for business to their annoyance at the way he openly pandered to the conservative Muslim vote — with only marginal results.

Apart from West Java, Prabowo also dominated across most of Sumatra, winning 80-90% of the vote in the Islamic strongholds of Aceh and West Sumatra, and engineering a surprise reversal in North Sumatra, turning a 44-55% loss in 2014 into a provisional 50-49% triumph.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto prays on the campaign trail at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta, April 7, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Andalou Agency/Anton Raharjo

He also rolled up Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and the Riau Islands, many of them provinces where low commodity prices have affected the crucial plantation economy. But he predictably fell far short of taking Lampung on the south coast, home to five million pro-Widodo Javanese trans-migrants.

In Kalimantan, Indonesia’s largest island, Widodo held on to North, East and Central Kalimantan, but suffered another surprising defeat in West Kalimantan, where mostly Christian Dayaks make up 43% of the populace, but are outnumbered by 2.5 million Muslim devotees.

Political analyst Andreas Harsono says the growing presence of the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and a tactical decision by local Malay leaders to forge an alliance with Madurese migrants from East Java has been responsible for the change in the political landscape.

“This is the tipping point,” he says, noting that the Malays now find it more expedient to use religion rather than ethnicity in finding common cause with the Madurese, who lost thousands of people in a savage outburst of Dayak ethnic cleansing in 1999.

Some of Prabowo’s biggest gains were on Sulawesi, across the water from Kalimantan. There, in South Sulawesi, the declining influence of outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla, 76, a Golkar party stalwart, saw the ideological pendulum swing so far the other way that it boosted Prabowo’s vote from 28% to 59%.

The opposition candidate also picked up Southeast Sulawesi and Gorantalo, but in another sign of the nationwide shift towards religious polarization, the voters of Christian-dominated North Sulawesi increased their support for Widodo from 53% to a stunning 84%.

An Indonesian woman shows her ballots for the country’s general election at a polling station in Jakarta on April 17, 2019. – Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

“I saw this coming,” says Bara Hasibuan, a senior opposition National Mandate Party (PAN) legislator who went against his own party and openly declared his support for Widodo. “Prabowo has had to pay for aligning himself with 212. There is a lot of fear here about a sharia state.”

Prabowo also made a mistake by scheduling a rally in Manado, the North Sulawesi capital, for Sunday morning when most people are in church. Widodo cancelled his planned rally a week later and instead joined two Christian gatherings, where he was treated like a rock star.

Across the rest of eastern Indonesia, religious minorities turned out in droves to support the president, giving him landslide victories on the Hindu island of Bali (91%) and in Christian-populated East Nusa Tenggara (86%), Muslim majority North Maluku (80%), Papua and West Papua (70-72%) – margins far greater than in 2014.

To complete the clear-cut lines of religious demarcation, Prabowo won by similarly wide margins in the dominant Christian provinces of Maluku (60%), and West Nusa Tenggara (86%), the island chain east of Bali encompassing Lombok and Sumba.

How long Prabowo continues to hold out is unclear, but his unhappiness has been compounded by the fact that Gerindra appears to have narrowly failed to beat out Golkar as the second-ranked party – something that was widely forecast in pre-election polls.

Unlike Prabowo, Uno has a future as a prospective presidential candidate in 2024. But unless the pair can patch things up, there must now be doubts whether he will stay with Gerindra or look elsewhere to secure his political future.

A recent report by the watchdog Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK) shows the wealthy entrepreneur gave US$135 million to Gerindra, including an initial $1.6 million to the Prabowo campaign itself at the time of his nomination.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Up until election day, Prabowo and Uno had an easy-going relationship, in sharp contrast to the stiff formality that exists between Widodo and Amin. But as a retired general, Prabowo demands loyalty — and reacts badly if it is not forthcoming.

While he has always had a hair-trigger temper, former finance minister and economic adviser Rizal Ramli claims Prabowo has mellowed over time and even allowed people to touch him on the campaign trail, something he had detested before.

When he banged the table and bellowed at a young Australian journalist not to lecture him about democracy during a recent interview aboard his campaign plane, he was quick to apologize. But he is not doing any apologizing now – at least not yet.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment