After tense election season, Indonesians breathe sigh of relief

Today my Indonesian language teacher showed up for our lesson wearing a blue and red checkered shirt, typical of the supporters of the newly elected president Joko Widodo (known by his nickname, Jokowi). Today, it seems like the wait is finally over. After three months of tense quiet since the election (and the results made clear), Jokowi was finally inaugurated.

Jokowi rode through massive crowds of supports in central Jakarta on Monday, flashing his trademark "two finger salute" (Photo: BBC)

Jokowi rode through massive crowds of supports in central Jakarta on Monday, flashing his trademark “two finger salute”. Later tonight he will be joined on stage by some of his favorite heavy metal bands, (Photo: BBC)

On the day the election results were announced, I expected a jubilant uproar around the city, which would have matched the excitement of Jokowi’s campaign. But his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, an ex-military general who was backed by big business and linked to the county’s history of dictatorships, swore to contest the election results in the constitutional court. So instead of holding victorious announcements and parades, Indonesians seemed to wait with bated breath. Over the next month, the constitutional court reviewed the evidence and declared (as we all suspected) that the election had been acceptably fair and Jokowi was in fact the true winner. Still, no celebrations were held. Prabowo stormed out of the court building, vowing to continue his quest to ruin his opponent.

Over the next two months, Prabowo and his cronies continued attempts to thwart the growth of popular democracy. First they tried to block Joko’s resignation from his current post as governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city. The attempt caused some turmoil but eventually failed. Then the Prabowo camp managed to land a real blow to the growing sense of democratic power. With a majority in parliament, they passed a bill in the last moments of the standing congressional session eliminating public elections for mayors, district chiefs and provincial governors. Only 10 years after Indonesians began popularly electing presidents, they may have lost the right to elect local leaders (who would instead be chosen by central leadership).

Prabowo and his backers were only setting the stage for a fight that promises to last throughout Joko’s presidency. Prabowo’s “red and white” coalition holds the majority of parlimentary seats, and they have already overturned the practice of giving speakership to the largest party (Joko’s); instead, they held a vote and kept speakership on Prabowo’s side.

No wonder progressive Indonesians who voted for Jokowi have kept their voices low. They know they are taking on a monolith of power with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of centralization, corruption and undemocratic processes.  They weren’t going to take to the streets until they were sure their president would be inaugurated.

Today, that day has come. Unfortunately, the fight is far from over.

Parallels to Obama’s election in 2008 abound. Jokowi does not come from the elite group of the country’s most recent leaders. He is from a slum in central Java, and began his career as a furniture maker. He rose up as governor of Solo in central Java and was later elected governor of Jakarta, despite fierce opposition. He is known for his unplanned visits to project sites and public areas, and he relied on broad-based fundraising. But I can only hope he and his followers are less naïve than we Americans were when we elected Obama.

I remember setting off fireworks the night Obama won, and I remember watching the parties in the streets of Brooklyn, Seattle, Washington and Chicago on TV as people cheered their newly elected president. The New York Times claimed the racial barriers had fallen in the following morning’s headlines. Americans, with our tremendous focus on the individual, were swept up in the idea that one man could make all the difference. In reality, Obama walked in to a government that was stacked against him, just as Jokowi will do tomorrow. As The Economist points out, the office of President of Indonesia still holds considerable power. Perhaps more importantly, in a culture of teamwork, the tides may be on Jokowi’s side. His popularity is massive, and Indonesians don’t expect him to create change alone. As Jokowi said in his first speech as President today, “Unity and working hand in hand are prerequisites for us to be a great nation. We will never become a great nation if we are stuck with division.”

Finally for the first time since the campaign, the energy behind Jokowi is palpable again. A stage was set up in central Jakarta where the new President is expected to sing along with his favorite heavy metal bands after dark. Millions of people have already filled the streets today. Their silence over the past few months suggests they are more realistic than their American friends about the challenges their president will face. But today, they get their turn to party.

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