Are Indonesian Elections “The Only Game in Town?”

Jamie Davidson‘s new book* Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy contains a prescient caveat about Indonesia’s democratic consolidation:

I do not mean to imply that Indonesia’s democracy is consolidated, or “the only game in town” (a popular saying among political scientists). Fixating on consolidation closes debate, foregrounds static outcomes, and ignores the dynamic processes of and challenges to democracy in current Indonesia.

This criticism of the consolidation framework is particularly relevant given the events of the past twenty-four hours in Indonesia. Yesterday, the Indonesian Election Commission released the official results of the April 2019 election, declaring that incumbent president Joko Widodo has defeated challenger Prabowo Subianto by a substantial margin of 55-45. Since then events have unfolded rapidly (for a good summary in English follow Febriana Firdaus). Prabowo has refused to concede, repeating his claim of massive electoral fraud. After some rumblings of a challenge in the streets, he has now announced that he will appeal the results to Indonesia’s constitutional court.

Jokowi, for his part, has now appeared in public to receive congratulations from former president and PDI-P head Megawati Sukarnoputri. It is meaningful that he appeared alongside Try Sutrisno, former head of the armed forces and vice president under former dictator Soeharto. Jokowi’s head security minister Wiranto (also a retired general) has been vocal in instructing Indonesians to respect the outcome.

Meanwhile, events “in the streets” continue. There have been calls for an Indonesian “people power” movement of mass protests tomorrow in Jakarta. As I write this, the hardline Islamic Defenders’ Front, allied with Prabowo, is issuing instructions on how to mobilize. Most worryingly, Soenarko, former head of Indonesia’s special forces, has been arrest on charges of smuggling weapons to Jakarta for use in anti-Jokowi protests. Wiranto and others have warned that Jakarta faces a heightened risk of terrorism as a result of these and other developments.

Circling back—so are elections the only game in town in Indonesia? And as Davidson argues, is this even a useful question to ask? The answer to both is a resounding “it depends.”

Although street politics and threats of violence are clearly non-electoral modes of political participation, it is important to stress that these are protests about the election outcome. They allege not that elections are illegitimate or should be scrapped, but rather that the elections were conducted unfairly (somehow). Prabowo would not have challenged the results had he won, and the argument will be that he actually should have. It remains the case that both incumbent and opposition act as if the proper way to allocate political authority is to win an election.*** This is not up for public debate, consistent with the idea that elections really are the only game in town for deciding who the president is.

In my read, the more worrying observation for Indonesian democracy is actually that Jokowi appears to rely on his visible connections to ex-military elites like Try and Wiranto to convey that a non-electoral challenge to the election results will be met with a decisive military response. This suggests that there might be “another game in town” for allocating political authority—mobilization and violence—but it observable manifestations are off the equilibrium path. We don’t observe anti-regime violence because the incumbent has has so internalized the threat of anti-regime violence that he has created a credible deterrent. Watch this space.

More broadly, these events suggest to me that the democratic consolidation framework is still relevant to analyzing Indonesian politics. Davidson is right that there are plenty of other ways to conceptualize the challenges facing Indonesian politics, and these warrant attention. But even if we cannot know whether or not elections really are the only game in town, posing the question this way is clarifying for understanding what is at stake in Prabowo’s response to the election results. For better or for worse, this “static outcome” (the 2019 presidential election) is important, because elections quite plainly lie at the heart of democracy. At Davidson’s urging, though, we might think more about how this single outcome interacts with other political processes that unfold over time, such as opposition consolidation, military reform, money politics, oligarchic capture, and others.


* Ahem. “Element.”
** “Soenarko” 🤭
*** I do not think it matters whether Jokowi or Prabowo really “believes in” elections or democracy.