Indonesians appeared to buck the global trend last month when they rejected would-be strongman leader Prabowo Subianto and re-elected incumbent President Joko Widodo. Jokowi, as the president is known, even increased his margin of victory over Prabowo, according to initial results, leading by around 10 percentage points, compared to 6 percentage points in 2014.
Looking beyond the headline numbers, however, reveals a more disturbing picture. Prabowo’s fiery rhetoric and his links to hard-line Islamist groups did not win him the election – although he is once again (and not very convincingly) claiming to be the victim of electoral fraud. But his approach succeeded in further polarising Indonesian society. The divide between the more conservative Muslim regions, many of which backed Prabowo, and the rest of nation appears to have deepened since 2014.
While the official election results will not be released until later this month, the transparent nature of the counting process allows polling organisations to gather reliable samples of actual votes cast. These “quick counts” show that Prabowo’s support surged in conservative Muslim provinces such as Aceh, South Sulawesi and West Sumatra.
As a counter-reaction, backing for Jokowi rose strongly in provinces where the majority are non-Muslim, such as Bali, East Nusa Tenggara and North Sulawesi. Jokowi also increased his support in Central Java and East Java, where Islam has traditionally mixed with a wide range of local religious and superstitious practices. The success in these two populous provinces seems due in part to his choice of Ma’ruf Amin, the president of Nadhlatul Ulama, the country’s biggest Muslim organisation, which has a big support base in Central and East Java.
Overall, 97 per cent of non-Muslims, who make up 13 per cent of the country’s 260 million people, voted for Jokowi, according to exit polling by Indikator, a respected pollster. Meanwhile Prabowo won the Muslim vote by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
These results are worrying for social cohesion in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Religious minorities and other marginalised groups including the LGBT community are already facing growing repression. Jokowi, a former small businessman whose strength has always been doing rather than talking, has struggled to craft the narratives that are needed to drive Indonesia in a more tolerant direction.
The widening religious divide could also affect policy making at a time when Indonesia’s economy has been performing steadily but unspectacularly and Jokowi has hesitated to enact much-needed structural reforms.
In that respect, his selection of Ma’ruf as vice president could prove to be a double-edged sword. Having the country’s most senior cleric by side helped Jokowi to defeat Prabowo. And Ma’ruf has the religious authority to gain the attention of many Muslims. But while he leads an organisation known for its commitment to Indonesia’s multi-faith nature, Ma’ruf has a history of promoting intolerance towards Islamic sects and other religious minorities. And the ageing cleric is unlikely to play the role of domestic and international political fixer that was honed by Jusuf Kalla, Jokowi’s current vice-president.
Much will depend on how much power the enigmatic Ma’ruf is given – and how a second-term Jokowi manages the relationship with his new number two. Jokowi’s advisers say that the president will grow into a more confident, reform-minded leader because Indonesia’s two-term limit frees him from the need to seek re-election. But, until now, the president has always preferred compromise to confrontation. And recent history in Indonesia, and elsewhere, suggests that term-limited leaders often end up as lame ducks.
The bigger question is whether Indonesia is in the midst of a structural shift to a new kind of divisive religion-infused politics or is merely seeing long-running identity issues flare up because of the electoral cycle.
The geographical splits in this election partly reflect historical cleavages in Indonesian politics and society that date back at least to independence from the Dutch in 1945. The polarisation has been exacerbated by the entrenched nature of the rivalry between Jokowi and Prabowo, which will not be repeated in 2024 because of the two-term limit.
But, as elsewhere in the world, the divisions appear to have been intensified by the use of social media to sow dissension and spread disinformation. This problem is not going away any time soon, especially as the use of social media is still growing rapidly in Indonesia.
Another important factor is the nature of the political system. The lack of significant ideological and policy differences between most of Indonesia’s political parties means that religion and identity are among the few tools they have to mobilise support.
The optimists hope that these divides will fade after the election, when political parties typically shift towards whoever has secured power in the hope of winning Cabinet positions and other forms of patronage. True to form, in the two weeks since the election, senior figures from two of the four political parties that backed Prabowo have already sought and obtained friendly meetings with Jokowi.
The president has a difficult job ahead to rebalance his Cabinet and his coalition in a way that reduces social tensions but does not undercut his promises of more economic progress in his second term. At the same time, he needs to find ways to try to reunite Indonesians after an extensive period of bitter politicking which has inflamed racial and religious tensions.
But it is not just a question of high politics. The outcome of the election reflects real divides in Indonesian society and competing visions of what sort of country Indonesia should become. The Indonesian people need to find a way to work through their differences, without aggravating them. That is a challenge that many countries are struggling with right now – and few are coming up with good answers.