Indonesia is, in a lot of ways, very similar to the United States. It is just behind the US (3rd and 4th respectively) in population, both are proud of the bloody wars fought for their independence from colonial power that often pitted neighbors against neighbor as much as the colonizers, and in each a strong militaristic patriotism runs parallel to a powerful religious conservatism.
Both Indonesia and the United States are also, in a manner of speaking, democracies and the former just held a presidential election that looked a lot like the latter’s of 2008. In the 2014 Indonesia version, the role of Barack Obama has been played by Joko Widodo (Jokowi), a former furniture exporter, local political activist and governor of the Indonesian capitol, Jakarta, who has promised sweeping reforms with high-minded rhetoric. Playing the role of John McCain has been Prabowo Subianto. Like McCain, Prabowo is a former military man who has catered to the strong conservative thread in the country that is nostalgic for “the good old days”. That is perhaps where the fair comparisons end though, since, in the case of Indonesia, those “good old days” mean the 30-year military-backed dictatorship of President Suharto who, like Prabowo, prioritized economic and social stability over democracy and civil liberty.
The parallels in this campaign to 2008 don’t stop with the players themselves. The attacks against Jokowi seem eerily reminiscent of those against one Barack Hussein Obama. Jokowi has been called communist and/or Chinese (read: socialist/Kenyan), both of which carry huge historical significance in the wake of the anti-communist and anti-Chinese purges of 1965-66 when some 500,000 were killed. Perhaps most ironic though is the assertion from religious conservatives that Jokowi, a practicing Muslim who recently made a whirlwind pilgrimage to Mecca, is secretly a Christian.
Polls closed at 1pm local time on July 9th and the official results won’t be published until July 22nd , but Jokowi currently leads in the “quick polls” by some 6%. So despite the attacks of the long campaign (another American parallel), it seems Jokowi, much like Obama, was swept into office by the country’s youth. According to the Jakarta Globe, “Thirty percent of the 190 million registered to vote are under the age of 30.” To put that in perspective, US voter registration for the 2012 election was 180 million (remember the US has about 70 million more people), while the percentage of those under 30 was 21.2%.
Even more revealing are the turnout statistics. According to early reports, voter turnout came in at around 70%, down from 75% in the legislative elections earlier this year. This is compared to 57.1% in 2008 and 57.5% in 2012 for the US. This difference is perhaps because Election Day is a holiday in Indonesia but then the polls are only open from 7am to 1pm. Would making Election Day in the US increase voter turnout by 15%? It’s probably worth a try.
Of course, voting statistics only count for so much. According to international watchdog Transperancy.org, Indonesia ranks 114th to the US’s 19th, in perceived corruption and in the 27th and 86th percentiles for control of corruption. But Transperancy.org only takes into account illegal corruption and with cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby empowering corporations, the influence of money on American politics is clear.
Finally, there’s the very real notion that the US isn’t exactly a democracy to begin with. At least compared to the Indonesian electoral system it’s not a direct democracy on the presidential level because of that antiquated political mechanism called the Electoral College. Arguments for or against the institution aside, the fact remains that arguably the most powerful man in the world is currently elected by an increasingly small number of swing voters in a smaller number of swing counties in a very few swing states, leaving the rest of us who live in blue or red states asking ourselves, “How much does my vote really count?” Solving this conundrum could boost turnout rate as much as making Election Day a national holiday.
So did Indonesia, a country that just 16 years ago ousted a military dictatorship through widespread riots and civic unrest, just out-democracy the United States? On the face of things, that seems to be the case. The one thing the US has going for it though is that, as a political unit, we’ve been doing this whole democracy for some 230-plus years, and over that time precedents have been established and crises overcome that have cemented the democratic process in place. Indonesia is just taking the first steps down that road and this election, which very well could have set them back decades, looks to be a huge step forward. Elections are always a critical period in a country’s history and what happens over the next days and weeks across the 13,466 islands that make up Indonesia will hopefully make them very proud.
Rowan Kane is the founder and editor of The Volterra.