Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Indonesia: Dispelling the ghosts of '98

Indonesia: Dispelling the ghosts of '98
Published 25 Aug 2014 

Police and students during the 1998 Jakarta riots. (Wikipedia.)

Twice in the past two months the spectre of the 1998 riots in Jakarta has been raised, and twice it has been dispelled by the Indonesian capital's refusal to return to a state of fear and violence.

No one seriously expected '98-level disorder at last week's announcement of the Constitutional Court's decision to reject the election appeal of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, nor at the announcement of president-elect Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo's victory last month. But the memory of the tragedy has hung over the city since election day in July.

The anxiety, hinging mainly on whether Prabowo and his supporters would concede defeat, is reflected in everyday conversation: Chinese-Indonesians who say they have tickets to Singapore on standby; former student protesters predicting public attacks by hired thugs; a motorcycle taxi driver asking why the Australian embassy hasn't arranged a ticket home for me yet. It also shows in the response by police and the armed forces, who brought in thousands of additional personnel from other provinces to secure the city last week.

In anticipation of the Constitutional Court's ruling last Thursday, an estimated 5000 protesters supporting Prabowo brought the city centre to a standstill with demonstrations that were met by authorities with tear gas and a water cannon. The action made for dramatic news footage, but in reality was a contained kind of chaos. Outside the city centre, typically congested main roads were empty of traffic as many commuters opted to stay home and out of the way of any potential trouble. Those who did attend the demonstration appeared to either be members of groups affiliated with Prabowo's coalition or simply rent-a-crowd protesters in it for the Rp50,000 ($5), new T-shirt and a free lunch — said to be the going rate for this odd staple of Indonesian politics.

Some demonstrators would have been truly there for the cause. The spin team behind Prabowo's campaign has been working hard to sow confusion about the status of the election. [fold]

Almost a month after Jokowi was declared president-elect, media outlets supporting the Prabowo camp were still introducing him as 'presidential candidate No. 2'. Banners can still be found today in central Jakarta congratulating Prabowo on his presidential 'win'. On Indonesia's Independence Day last weekend, mainstream TV channels broadcast the flag-raising ceremony involving outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, while over on the Prabowo-affiliated TVOne the main event was a bizarre ceremony at a polo club involving Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa, who acted as if they had already been made president and vice president.

On Thursday, as the Constitutional Court prepared to read its verdict on Prabowo's claim of 'structured, massive and systematic' electoral fraud by his opponent, Prabowo was nowhere to be seen. Jokowi, meanwhile was carrying out his duties as Jakarta governor, awaiting his inauguration as president in the coming months. His supporters had been asked to stay off the streets and wait for the court to settle the dispute. They were not disappointed. Judges publicly read out an overview of their verdict, addressing each point in Prabowo's lawsuit one by one. Starting at 2pm, the verdict reading lasted several hours, leaving the bored protesters to give up their chants and eventually disperse at sundown. Just before 9pm, the verdict was finally confirmed as a rejection of Prabowo's appeal, leaving Jokowi's claim to the presidency intact. Symbolically, The Jakarta Post reported that the announcement came 16 years to the day since Prabowo was dismissed from the military over alleged human rights abuses during the 1998 riots.

Soon after the verdict was announced, the Prabowo camp released a statement accepting defeat, but still alleging instances of injustice in the conduct of the election.

Nonetheless, there appears to be a general acceptance of the election result and a clear preference for any disputes to be handled via democratic institutions rather than a disturbance of the peace. Thanks to the functioning of institutions such as the General Elections Commission (KPU) and the Constitutional Court, attempts to disrupt the election process via misinformation and the orchestration of public disturbances have not succeeded. Indonesia's democracy may still be a work in progress, but this election showed a population determined to achieve consensus and rule of law rather than return to past tactics of fear and violence.

You may also be interested in