With the power of the incumbency and a massive outpouring of votes from his fellow Javanese making the greatest difference, Joko Widodo appears to have outpaced rival Prabowo Subianto in Wednesday’s highly anticipated presidential election in Indonesia.
Quick count results and exit polls, both of which have proved accurate in the past, showed President Widodo with a lead of 9-10 percentage points (55-45%) after a peaceful campaign where the intertwined issues of religion and identity politics were major factors among Indonesia’s 193 million eligible voters.
That was underscored not only by Widodo’s choice of conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, but also by his exclusive election-eve visit to the inner sanctum of the Ka’bah, the centerpiece of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Despite Wednesday’s simultaneous presidential and legislative polls being the world’s largest single-day election, spanning just six hours, it was also the most accessible, with 805,000 polling stations catering to an average of 200 voters, compared to 600 in 2014.
In the parliamentary elections, Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) looked to be headed for marginally its biggest haul of seats since the country’s first new era democratic elections in 1999, thanks almost entirely to the popular president’s coat-tails.
Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) enjoyed the same benefits of having a presidential candidate, challenging the once all-powerful Golkar machine for the runner-up position and setting up the opposition for a new run at the presidency in 2024.
With no obvious heir apparent, Widodo may have only two years to burnish his legacy before he becomes a lame duck and the scramble begins to find a successor from among a new generation, which is likely to include Prabowo’s popular running mate Sandiaga Uno.
Several sources have told Asia Times the president is already considering a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle soon after the official election results are known early next month, which would give him a flying start when his new government is formed next October.
Widodo is likely to be unhappy at failing to reach 60% of the vote — the target met by predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in winning a second term in 2009 — given the disappointment he showed when pollsters told him he wasn’t going to clear the threshold.
Australian National University analyst Marcus Mietzner says while the election was largely a replay of 2014, it reflected trends which suggested a growing polarization between the Java heartland and the outlying islands —Sumatra and Sulawesi in particular.
Widodo picked up his biggest gains in the populous provinces of Central and East Java, winning with a provisional 76% and 65% of the vote respectively, compared to 66% and 53% in the last election and defying predictions of a tight contest in East Java.
Mietzner ascribes that virtual landslide to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the moderate mass Muslim organization which had warned Widodo last August to dump his favored vice presidential candidate, Mahfud MD, in favor of conservative cleric and NU stalwart Ma’ruf Amin.
As a result, the controversial move led to the NU leadership mobilizing its formidable apparatus behind the president, with major pesantrens (Islamic boarding houses) in places such as Situbondo on Java’s northeast coast switching from their previous allegiance to Prabowo.
But Widodo appears to have even lost ground in West Java, the country’s biggest province, where Prabowo again took about 60% of the vote, relying on a hard core of hardline voters who had brought down Widodo’s ally, Chinese-Christian governor Basuki Purnama, in 2016.
NU’s reach is not so strong in West Java and neither Amin, who was born in the neighboring province of Banten, or Golkar, which had supported Prabowo in 2014, were able to make any difference — a further indication that parties had little influence on voter thinking in the presidential race.
Prabowo again dominated in Sumatra, with Widodo still clinging on to North Sumatra and Lampung, two of the largest provinces. The retired general also made a strong showing in Sulawesi, capturing South Sulawesi, home of outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
But while Widodo also lost in most of the other Sulawesi provinces, the incumbent president engineered a remarkable 40% swing in North Sulawesi, a strong Christian stronghold, and had a clear lead across the water in North and East Kalimantan.
Apart from Muslim-populated West Nusa Tenggara, Widodo repeated his showing of 2014 by picking up most of the minority votes across the eastern Indonesian islands, highlighted by a thumping 90% victory on the tourist island and Hindu enclave of Bali.
As with their 2014 race, all the mainstream polls had Widodo comfortably ahead in the final week. But while the gap closed appreciably back then, this time Widodo maintained a handy lead throughout a campaign that was never really on a knife edge.
“If Prabowo wins, then this will be the end of the political polling industry in Indonesia,” Mietzner had told a media briefing a few days before the election. “It would be a major, major upset.”
Inevitably, the retired general will not agree and with the Constitution Court extending the period for legal challenges out to August 8, it was clear long before Indonesians went to the polls that a losing Prabowo would not yield gracefully.
This time, however, the margin had grown to about 55% to-45%, making it more difficult for his lawyers to claim systematic electoral fraud, particularly when Gerindra’s parliamentary candidates appear to have done so well across the archipelago.
As night fell on election day, Prabowo’s campaign team continued to claim they were ahead by a similar margin in the official count. “Please stay calm, don’t do anything rash,” one official told supporters outside the Jakarta headquarters. “But do not believe the pollsters.”