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” ūü§≠
*** I do not think it matters whether Jokowi or Prabowo really “believes in” elections or democracy.

Ethics, Transparency, and Risky Research

The other day Roxani Krystalli shared a memo detailing her communication and negotiations with the US National Science Foundation on issues relating to data sharing and privacy in the context of research on violence in Colombia. The memo addresses a number of core issues that were part and parcel of the Qualitative Transparency Deliberations (QTD) several years ago. It is worth a read. It actually gives me hope about the responsiveness of our institutional funders to the actual concerns that political scientists have. But it is also worth a read for two other reasons: on the question of epistemology and transparency, and on institutionalizing rules in the production of knowledge.

On the first, as I wrote elsewhere, what I find striking about the memo and its discussion is that nothing in it is specific to an interpretivist epistemology. I would imagine that a positivist doing such research would have the same concerns and obligations. For example, on the question of anonymizing individual data:

These markers [name, title, institutional affiliation] are not the only aspects of identity that sketch the lives of my interlocutors. To illustrate, the first question I ask state officials who work within bureaucracies of victimhood is how they arrived at this position. My research to date has shown that their answers often consist of detailed accounts of the violence they and their families have observed or experienced in ways that would be identifiable even if I removed the research participant’s name, location, or professional title

Relatedly, on informed consent:

The range of disclosure requested by NSF would present three specific challenges to this process. First, for some of my interlocutors who have not had any formal education or access to the internet, a ‚Äúdata depository‚ÄĚ is not a concept that would translate in their daily lives in a way that would allow them to meaningfully consent to this process. Second, for interlocutors who do understand the concept, it can bear strong connotations of state surveillance or surveillance by foreign governments. This perception would be exacerbated by the fact (which I would have to disclose to my research participants as part of the required funding disclosure in the consent process) that it is a US government grant that requires me to share data in this way.

There are other examples. These are not interpretivist problems, these are problems for anyone doing risky research in postconflict areas. They are certainly questions that I have pondered at some length, and I suspect that many others have as well.

It is on the issue of institutionalizing rules in the production of knowledge, though, that I find Krystalli’s memo even more telling. Contemporary political science is moving in a direction of greater post hoc policing of published research: replication archives, annotation for transparent inquiry, DA-RT, and so forth. There is real concern that social scientists need to create common disciplinary institutions to prevent fraudulent or plainly erroneous research from being published; or, in the case of related initiatives like pre-analysis plans, to mitigate the strategic incentives that authors face to produce certain types of findings. Much of this concern is genuine, and it responds to real problems.*

But there is a related move to ensure that political science remains a broad and inclusive discipline in which not just quantitative and experimental, but also historical, qualitative, ethnographic, and post-positivist research can be published. The logic of the replication archive is plain for a dataset; not so for field notes. The QTD initiative was an attempt to figure out if there was a way to put these together. Although I have come to believe that some proponents of initiatives like ATI wish to use these initiatives as a way to constrain the types of qualitative work that are admissible as “Real political science,” in my experience most genuinely want to find a way to ensure that other types of research are still possible.

The emerging solution seems to be something like an “opt-out” provision that allows the authors of qualitative, ethnographic, or other types of research to request that the established rule not apply to their specific research. That is, in effect, what Krystalli’s memo is.

Here is how these intersect. The establishment of a blanket standard—a rule—for analytic transparency that forces qualitative or ethnographic scholars to go through an appeal procedure to ensure that their work is not subject to that rule creates one more barrier to seeing such work published. Think of how much extra work that memo required! It also requires discretion—and good will and understanding—on the part of editors, funders, or other gatekeepers.

Well-meaning proponents of institutionalized rules who also seek to maintain a methodologically and epistemologically plural discipline should take note.


* I am a big fan of replication archives for quantitative research, and I am also happy when I have to to create a replication archive for my own work. It enforces a discipline on analysis and coding that is annoying in the moment but welcome after the fact.