On Wednesday last week, Indonesia’s estimated 187 million voters went to the polls to choose a new president in an election that promises to be a crucial turning point for the country’s young democracy.
Within hours of the polls closing, rival candidates Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto had both declared an early victory on the basis of so-called unofficial quick counts conducted by private pollsters. Eight out of 12 quick count organisations indicated a victory for Jokowi—by a relatively comfortable and consistent margin of between 4% to 6.88%, whereas the remaining four pollsters signalled a Prabowo victory by a somewhat anomalous margin of 0.2% to 4%.
Amid the confusion that followed, and with Jokowi’s supporters already dancing in the streets, outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took to his Twitter account to try and ease the deadlock. He asked both sides to “restrain themselves” and abstain from any public celebration of the results until an official verdict has been announced by the General Elections Commission (KPU) later this month.
Events since last Wednesday have been strange to say the least. Both Jokowi and Prabowo have been urging Indonesians to respect the integrity of the KPU’s vote count and be patient in the run-up to the official verdict, yet simultaneously expressing their certainty that they have already secured victory as evidenced by a number of favourable quick counts.
The intractability of the stalemate has rightfully led to much greater scrutiny of the quick count agencies, not least by journalists and academics but also by national survey watchdog, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, also known as Persepi. This enterprise in fact checking has turned out to be a major embarrassment for Prabowo, as each of the agencies which called the quick count in his favour have seen their results widely dismissed on the basis of candidate bias and historical polling inaccuracies.
On Thursday last week, researchers from Australian National University were quick to point out the dubiousness of all four pro-Prabowo pollsters, three of whom have previously made gross overestimations of Prabowo’s popularity in past elections, and another of which has “almost no track record, except for falsely predicting Governor Fauzi Bowo’s victory against Jokowi in Jakarta in 2012, and for claiming in the same year that 64 percent of Indonesians thought that Prabowo was the most suitable candidate for the Indonesian presidency.”
The humiliation of team Prabowo has continued well into this week, as two of its trusty polling allies—Puskaptis and the Indonesian Votes Network (JSI)—have been forced to resign from the Persepi group after refusing to submit their data, methodology and funding for a public audit, thus squandering whatever modicum of credibility they might have had left post-quick count.
In contrast, each of the seven pollsters that called the election in Jokowi’s favour (and are members of Persepi), have had their data audited and their results declared valid. The other pro-Joko polling agency which is not a member of Persepi—state broadcaster Radio of the Indonesian Republic (RRI)—has not yet been audited, but at least holds the mantle of having produced the most accurate quick count of the legislative elections earlier this year, despite being a “relative newcomer to the business.”
All in all, what we have seen is a straight split between dubious, partisan quick count organisations favouring Prabowo on the one hand, and established pollsters with more of a track record for accuracy and neutrality calling the result for Jokowi on the other. With this in mind, the election does now seem to be a closed case, and we can expect to see a Jokowi victory come results day on July 22 barring significant counting fraud.
In the meantime, however, this has not prevented team Prabowo from waging an obtrusive campaign of bad faith and denial through both openly partisan and non-partisan media outlets.
On Friday July 11, for example, just two days after the election, Prabowo appeared on the BBC’s World News Impact program touting his alleged victory and aggressively denigrating his rival Jokowi. In one of Prabowo’s most animated television performances to date, the embattled old general dismissed all unfavourable quick count data as being “completely not objective” and “part of [a] grand design to manipulate perception [of the contest].” He then went on to accuse Jokowi of being “a product of [a] PR campaign” and “a tool of the oligarchs,” all the while repeating his mantra that “I’m very confident[…]I have gotten the mandate of the Indonesian people.”
Prabowo’s flippancy and outspoken defiance, in the face of an almost certain defeat, seems designed to sow doubt and cause confusion among voters ahead of results day. Many analysts have interpreted this as a Prabowo ploy to rile up his cadres and buy time for a last ditch manipulation of the vote count. Try as they might, however, it’s unlikely that Prabowo and his accomplices will be able to steal or falsify the projected 4 – 6 million votes needed to overturn a Jokowi victory. Counting irregularities on such an enormous (and unprecedented) scale would surely be too conspicuous to go unnoticed, and would doubtless provoke bitter retaliation from Jokowi’s disenfranchised supporters.
In any case, the tension looks set to escalate as the official results day draws nearer, with both sides accusing one another of using so-called “ghost votes” to buttress their total ballots. Accordingly, the National Police have drawn up a range of contingency measures in the capital in anticipation of clashes between rival supporters and possibly outbreaks of rioting in the aftermath of next week’s verdict.
Whatever the outcome on July 22, it is unlikely that the losing party will concede defeat without putting up a fight. Most observers expect the result to be challenged at the Constitutional Court, which would then have until August 22 to verify the results of the KPU’s vote count. Such a likelihood does not bode well for Indonesia’s voters, given the court’s less than immaculate record and its recent embroilment in a landmark corruption case, which saw former chief justice Akil Mochtar jailed for life after being found guilty of accepting $5.1 million in bribes in exchange for favourable rulings in previous local elections.
Further adding to the intrigue at the Constitutional Court is the alleged bias of two incumbent judges, both of whom have previously been members of political parties now part of Prabowo’s “Red and White Coalition”.
In a contest that is now being described as “the dirtiest election campaign in Indonesian history”, the battle looks set to drag on well into the summer. A Jokowi victory is almost a foregone conclusion, yet there remains no clear end in sight.