As we arrive at the last week of campaigning before Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election, the race continues to narrow, and many liberal Indonesians, activists, diplomats, businesspeople, and academics live in fear of a Prabowo Subianto presidency. As I have discussed in previous posts, they worry that Prabowo, despite his claims to the contrary, is not a committed democrat, and will attempt to return Indonesia to the guided democracy/de facto autocracy of the country’s first five decades. Prabowo also has never effectively addressed the numerous allegations of past involvement in human rights abuses, back when he was head of the army’s strategic reserve command.
But it is also worth questioning why Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has seen himself go from the presumed winner three months ago to a man now in the race of his life, with some polls showing the election essentially now even. (Prabowo still trails in polls, but he is within the margin of error) Three months ago, polls showed Jokowi with a staggering thirty point leader over Prabowo in the contest, and most businesspeople, diplomats, and other opinion leaders had all but sworn Jokowi in and were planning for his presidency. Jokowi may still eke out the win, but it is hard to remember such a collapse of any presidential candidacy in such a short period of time. This meltdown is particularly surprising given that, prior to this race, Jokowi had developed a reputation as a savvy campaigner and brilliant political tactician.
How has Jokowi fallen so far so fast? For one, in a race where it was essential to get somewhat dirty, Jokowi has consistently tried to take the high road – almost never a winning strategy in democratic politics anywhere in the world. Prabowo surrogates have smeared Jokowi with allegations that he is aligned with ethnic Chinese interests, that he is not really Muslim, or is totally ignorant of the world, and other supposed slurs on Jokowi’s character. (I say supposed, because in an ideal world these would not be considered slurs at all in Indonesia.) The Jokowi campaign initially did not even respond, let alone launch its own negative advertising. By now, when the Jokowi campaign has started really responding, the negative campaigning against Jokowi has made its mark on the population. In particular, the allegation that Jokowi lacks experience and knows little of governing, and the world, has resonated with Indonesians – even though Prabowo himself has never held any elected office at all. As any campaign consultant in Washington would tell you, negative ads get made because they work – much more effectively than positive campaign ads.
In addition, the Prabowo campaign realized that, though elections for president now are direct in Indonesia, wrapping up support from a range of political parties other than the president’s own is crucial to winning the presidential election. Parliament remains divided up among a wide number of Indonesian parties, some of them quite small. You can be elected president without your party controlling a large portion of seats in parliament, as Indonesia’s current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in his first term. But the Jokowi campaign seemed to have thought that enlisting the support of other parties, many of which are simply patronage machines, was old-fashioned, contrary to new and clean politics, and somehow beneath them. Jokowi has paid for this mistake, as Prabowo’s campaign has skillfully wrapped up support from other parties and then made effective use of their patronage and get-out-the-vote machines.
Jokowi’s campaign also, until recently, has been noticeably unorganized and ineffective on social media, which is a bit surprising given that Jokowi is younger than Prabowo and has been one of the most ardent users of Twitter in the country. (Jokowi has roughly 1.7 million followers on Twitter.) Social media is critical for the Jokowi campaign, since Prabowo and his allies have so many connections in the mainstream media that much of the mainstream media seems to be essentially backing Prabowo’s campaign. Indonesia has the third-most Facebook users of any country in the world, and Jakarta produces, by some counts, the most tweets of any city in the world each day. Yet Jokowi’s campaign was slow to organize a concerted social media effort other than Jokowi’s own tweeting and some volunteers’ use of social media on behalf of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Prabowo campaign organized the kind of detailed, massive, and tailored social media campaign that Barack Obama has used in his presidential runs.