Joko Widodo, 53, a political newbie with no links to the authoritarian Suharto era, is poised to lead Indonesia after all the votes are counted in the presidential elections — but barely by a whisker.
His rival, a former general from the old days before the dictator Suharto was deposed in 1998, did not concede defeat in the extremely close race, raising the spectre of violence during the long wait for the results to be declared on 22 July. Both candidates claimed victory.
After polling closed on 9 July, most prominent media and polling agencies in Indonesia said their unofficial “quick vote” counts had put Widodo ahead by a slim margin of about five points. On the other hand, only a few surveys allied with General Prabowo Subianto, 62, put him ahead by similar margins.
Well-known think-tank CSIS Indonesia put Widodo ahead with 52 percent of the vote. It gave Subianto 48 percent. Another prominent organization, Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting, put the figures at 52.9 and 47.1 percent, respectively. State-owned Radio Republik Indonesia had a similar count at 52.6 for Widodo and 47.4 percent for Subianto.
The unofficial quick vote counts, which have proved reliable in the past, are not exit polls but samples of actual votes that are tallied by polling agents during the public counting of the votes.
Votes from 2,000 polling stations are tabulated as samples to predict the overall result. The quick vote count, which is based on a total of about 600,000 actual votes cast, is conducted to offset the delay caused by the time needed to count all the votes.
There are over 400,000 polling booths spread across 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago and vote-counting in the world’s third-largest democracy is a major logistical undertaking.
Given Indonesia’s short history of democracy with just two previous presidential elections, the slim margin of Widodo’s predicted win is causing unease.
Outgoing President Susilo Yudhoyono appealed for calm. “(Both candidates) must maintain peaceful conditions across the country. They have to be able to control their supporters so that they don’t get involved in conflict or violence,” he told reporters in Jakarta.
The very fact that Gen Subianto, who was married to Suharto’s daughter (they are now divorced), did as well as he did seems to point to an element of nostalgia within Indonesia for strong leadership after Suharto’s overthrow and the chaos of democracy that followed.
Gen Subianto made a dramatic recovery after trailing Widodo by 30 points in public opinion polls just three months ago, largely on the strength of his campaigning.
His election rallies, which were a display of military pomp in front of thousands of cheering supporters, were carefully choreographed. They celebrated his past as the commander of Suharto’s special forces, causing unease among intellectuals who fear a return to autocracy.
In fact, the former general, who is accused of grave abuses during the waning days of Suharto’s reign, made no secret of his preference, saying at one point that democracy “did not suit” Indonesia.
At his events, he made a dramatic entry in a white open-top jeep flanked by his own honour guards and a marching band. He also on occasion inspected an honour guard of hundreds of paramilitary troops astride a white horse.
His remarkable performance at the polls is not easy to explain given that almost 67 million of Indonesia’s 187 million voters in this election were first-time voters. More than one-third of the voters were youth with no memories of the Suharto era and arguably with more liberal concerns than those displayed by Subianto.
The likely winner Widodo, on the other hand, first came into the national limelight with an upset win to become the governor of Jakarta in 2012. A man of humble origins, he became extremely popular on his walkabouts through Jakarta, with a hands-on approach in a country plagued with a slow-moving bureaucracy.
President Yudhoyono, who is completing his second term, was seen as an indecisive leader. Though the Indonesian economy, which is the largest in Southeast Asia, has made gains under him, corruption, poor infrastructure and the lack of quality education have hampered progress.
The incoming president’s biggest challenge will be to revive the economy, which has slowed during the previous nine quarters. In a sign of the good times to come, the predictions of a Widodo win drove up the Jakarta Composite.