Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo, left, and his defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto. Pic: AP.

On Tuesday this week, just hours before the official winner of Indonesia’s presidential election was scheduled to be announced, former military strongman Prabowo Subianto seemingly “withdrew” from the competition, leaving rival Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to celebrate his victory amidst an atmosphere of widespread uncertainty and confusion, particularly among Prabowo’s own supporters.

The manoeuvre was unprecedented in Indonesia’s electoral history, and its implications were at first unclear. In the run-up to Tuesday’s verdict Prabowo had pledged to challenge the official vote count at the Constitutional Court, but no one had predicted that he would abandon the election altogether prior to the announcement of the result.

As I wrote in a previous piece for Asian Correspondent, on Tuesday afternoon we were told by a legal representative from Prabowo’s camp that an officially “withdrawn” Prabowo ticket would not be able to contest the result of the election at the Constitutional Court, since the termination of his candidature also forfeited his right to appeal – described (incidentally in English) as his “legal standing”.

Later that evening Jokowi went on to be proclaimed as Indonesia’s new president-elect, and Prabowo’s campaign team appeared to have shot itself in the foot, leaving the incredulous old general with few – if any – legitimate ways  to contest the final verdict.

On Wednesday morning, however, this had all changed – literally overnight. Evidently unfazed by the previous day’s strategic catastrophe, Prabowo’s relentless PR machinery clicked back into gear and went about a U-turn of extraordinary cunning.

At a well rehearsed press conference to which mostly foreign journalists were invited, Prabowo’s younger brother and chief bankroller – billionaire businessman Hashim Djojohadikusomo – insisted that “Prabowo never withdrew as a candidate for President”, as was widely believed. Instead, according to Hashim, Prabowo had in fact only withdrawn from Tuesday’s vote counting process, rather than the the election itself. This means that team Prabowo was entitled to appeal against the election result at the Constitutional Court, and he filed that appeal on Friday evening. The court said it would announce its verdict on August 21, and that it cannot be appealed.

Prabowo and his indignant backers are disputing the official verdict reached by Indonesia’s National Elections Commission (KPU) on the basis of alleged endemic ballot fraud, which Prabowo referred to on Tuesday as “massive, structural and systematic cheating”. His legal outfit charge that irregularities of some sort took place at over 50,000 polling stations back on election day July 9, which therefore calls into question the legitimacy of approximately 21 million votes. Prominent accusations include widespread mismatches between the number of ballots cast and the numbers of voters registered in certain districts, a claim which Prabowo’s cohort of naysayers say is substantiated by their own, privately collected data – which they of course believe to be more credible and more accurate than that of the highly respected KPU.

At this stage it is not yet clear how such extensive cheating is alleged to have been carried out (or even which side benefitted from it), but one of Prabowo’s trusted lawyers, Didi Supriyonto, assured the press on Wednesday that concrete evidence of enormous ballot fraud does indeed exist and will soon be revealed in the forthcoming plea to the Constitutional Court.

Not surprisingly, however, other observers who are not in the employ of the “Red and White Coalition” have questioned the wisdom of Prabowo’s determined efforts to delegitimize the KPU’s official vote count, and have denounced such tactics as a dangerous enterprise in both finger pointing and futility.

Already Prabowo’s campaign team has begun slandering Indonesia’s electoral institutions, after erroneously claiming that the Election Supervisory Body (Bawalsu) had earlier called for “re-votes in over 5,000 polling stations in Jakarta alone, and in six heavily populated counties of East Java. [But] these recommendations were completely ignored by the KPU”. Bawalsu have since rebutted such claims as completely made-up, saying they never recommended any such thing and also pointing out that Prabowo’s own entourage of scrutinisers didn’t even stick around long enough to observe the East Java vote count during the official recapitulation on Tuesday afternoon.

This brief smearing of both Bawalsu and the KPU is reminiscent of the dirty tactics used by Prabowo’s campaign during the earlier stages of the election, as malicious rumours pertaining to Jokowi’s alleged Chinese ancestry and Christian faith were circulated by Prabowo’s obedient and spineless functionaries in the media. Such reliance on sabotage and misinformation does not bode well for the integrity of Prabowo’s formal court appeal, which will of course be his last chance to demonstrate that “losing is not option”, as he famously declared during an interview with The Straits Times earlier this month.

With Jokowi now putting together his ministerial cabinet, and incumbent president SBY hinting that “admitting defeat” and “congratulating the winner is noble”, it is currently looking almost inevitable that Prabowo’s continued quest to overturn the election will only end in further humiliation for himself and his campaign team. Indeed, the chorus of voices already calling for Prabowo to just give up and concede is growing exponentially – particularly among the ranks of Prabowo’s own coalition.

Agung Laksono, for example, deputy chairman of the Golkar party which is still tentatively allied to Prabowo’s Gerindra, recently suggested that, “it would be better not to take [the case to court]“, admitting that “the process has been fair and transparent. Let’s just accept the result”.

Prabowo’s forthcoming appeal has also been subject to a scathing denunciation from his former campaign manager Mahfud MD, who famously abandoned the Prabowo-Hatta ticket amidst the confusion of Tuesday afternoon’s rejection of the KPU. As a former chief justice at the Constitutional Court, Mahfud seems to understand that the sheer margin of Jokowi’s official victory has already obliterated Prabowo’s chances of having the election overturned. In Wednesday’s Jakarta Post Mahfud was quoted as saying, “From my experience, proving  fraud in 200,000 votes is just impossible, let alone with 8 million votes. It would be simply pointless to bring the case to court”.

Following an election which is widely believed to have been one of Indonesia’s “most transparent” and closely monitored contests to date, Prabowo is surely deluded to think that anything can be achieved by taking his case to the highest court in the land. Still more worrying, however, is the prospect that a failed appeal will not be sufficient to dispel Prabowo’s insistence that the election was “undemocratic” and that the “mandate of the people” halsoeen “mocked” by the KPU.

Since Tuesday’s humiliating defeat, Prabowo’s rhetoric has escalated once again, arriving at a level of belligerence hitherto unseen during his campaign so far. Most recently team Prabowo has reportedly pledged to “disrupt” the inauguration ceremony of the incoming president and vice president, and Prabowo himself has reiterated that losing is still not an option. Just this morning he was overheard by a source for Detik.com inciting his cadres with a catchy newfound slogan: “I will never surrender, I will never surrender, I will never surrender!”

Things could well get ugly if the Constitutional Court case doesn’t go Prabowo’s way, but it has to be said that the writing was on the wall all along. In other words, to borrow a quote from the ANU’s Marcus Mietzner, “Nothing that Prabowo does is surprising. The surprising thing is that he was able to fool so many people for so long about being a democrat.”