Why did the Indonesian election result trigger the turmoil?


At least six people died and hundreds were arrested in violent street demonstrations for the outcome of the Indonesian elections. It's the worst political violence in Indonesia for decades.

To try to minimize the number of people who incite or advertise protests, Indonesia has slowed the sharing of videos, photographs and memes on all social media sites.

The winner of the election, current Joko Widodo, is a former furniture salesman and local mayor who grew up in a poor family in central Java. He won an overwhelming 55% victory against his opponent Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo is a millionaire business man, a former military general and son-in-law of the former president and dictator Suharto. His military service was controversial in East Timor, West Papua and during the anti-Suharto riots in Jakarta in 1998 with accusations of atrocities committed by human rights that haunted him for decades.

Prabowo Subianto during the election campaign.

Prabowo Subianto during the election campaign.Credit:AP

What started the riots in Jakarta?

The elections were held on April 17th but, after a careful count, the result was announced only this week.

Advised in advance of street protests and potential violence, the Electoral Commission presented the announcement of the results and held it in the middle of the night: Monday midnight.


Prabowo also lost the 2014 election against Jokowi, after which it also contested the (unsuccessful) result in the Constitutional Court, citing widespread fraud. The protests took place even then, even if they were deactivated.

This time, Prabowo had marked mass rallies and another constitutional court challenge long before it would have lost. Once again, he claimed electoral fraud and fraud, including irregularities in electoral lists.

The Electoral Commission denies this and there is no clear evidence of fraud.

Joko Widodo, left, and his vice president Maruf Amin.

Joko Widodo, left, and his vice president Maruf Amin.Credit:AP

Is Indonesia a functioning democracy?

Twenty-one years after the fall of the dictator Suharto, Indonesia has become a vibrant democracy, in effect, a transition that has been largely successful and peaceful.

About 193 million people have the right to vote and, according to the Electoral Commission, 153 million have deposited valid votes, even if it is not mandatory.

But the country is still ravaged by old and new problems, including endemic corruption, inadequate infrastructure and insufficient environmental protection, a huge gap between the few rich and the poor and the growing economy to 5%, which is strong but not enough to lift large numbers of people out of poverty.

The cars burned during the protests.

The cars burned during the protests.Credit:Bloomberg

Islam is also playing an increasing role in defining political identity and intolerance is on the rise in a nation that has for decades prided itself on its commitment to "unity in diversity".

A large number of Indonesians have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, and some have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight, becoming radicalized and not fomented.

Sharia law (Islamic religious law) is already in force in the conservative province, formerly revolting in Aceh.

Both presidential candidates appealed to Islamic sentiments, but those with fundamentalist fundamentalist sympathies tended to support Prabowo.

The protesters threw stones at the police and army on the streets of Jakarta.

The protesters threw stones at the police and army on the streets of Jakarta.Credit:AP

Why did these protests become violent?

During the elections, the supporters of Prabowo had promised a movement of "popular power" to protest against the result, and tens of thousands of policemen had been summoned from Friday to watch the road outside the key institutions, including the Electoral Commission .

Police say that when the protests started early on Tuesday they were quiet.

But after 9 pm, peaceful protesters were replaced by people intent on the violence who started burning infrastructure including a police dormitory, destroying cars and throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks.

The police suggested, without naming the parties or offering evidence, that the protests were not spontaneous but were organized and paid for by an unnamed person. They say they found an ambulance with the logo of a political party inside it and, inside, envelopes full of money and stones ready to be launched. They claim that the people who were arrested were found carrying with them money bags equivalent to an average pay of several days in Indonesia.

It is likely that one of the many radical street gangs, including groups such as the Islamic thug Defenders Front (FPI), helped organize the protesters. Some of the protesters were heard shouting "Allahu Akhbar" ("God is great)" while throwing objects. It is Ramadan, a holy month in the Islamic calendar, which is generally a time of renewed militancy among extremists and many of those living on the streets.

But the protesters claimed that it was the police officers themselves who caused violence in the crowd by planting people who threw stones and firecrackers.

The Indonesian state called the army Wednesday to help quell the situation.

A police officer fires his tear gas canister.

A police officer fires his tear gas canister.Credit:AP

How did people die?

It's too early to tell. There are still few details about the six people who were killed, but the indications are that they were protesters, not police or military agents.

The police did not explain the death. They insisted that the police were only shooting rubber bullets and tear gas.

They have hinted that people may have been killed by armed protesters themselves to try to provoke a more furious reaction on the streets. They say that some of the protesters entering Jakarta carried firearms.

Rocks, riot shields and tear gas: central Jakarta on Wednesday night.

Rocks, riot shields and tear gas: central Jakarta on Wednesday night.Credit:AP

What happens next?

Predictions are difficult to make in this context.

Indonesian authorities have warned that there is still an increased risk of violence, including possible acts of terrorism. The demonstrations can last throughout May 23rd, particularly around the suburb of Menteng, in Jakarta, and at the Electoral Supervisory Board, and in the areas of Tanah Abang, Jalan Wahid Hasyim and Slipi.

Prabowo has limited time to launch a legal challenge and is considered likely to do so. The constitutional court of the country will listen to and consider its case, and any further protest will probably be scheduled to coincide with that decision. This is what happened in 2014, although the protests in that occasion were limited to one day.

Prabowo risks losing that challenge, as it did in 2014, which should mean that Joko is able to govern as president for his five-year term.


Some of his supporters, including a lawyer who called for street protests, were arrested on treason charges. Prabowo's name appeared on documents related to the arrest, but the police later withdrew those documents.

It is possible, even if it is not probable, that Prabowo himself can be arrested if the police can establish a direct link between him and these clashes.

If Prabowo again disputes the elections in 2024 it is another question.

What is a tip for travelers?

The Smart Traveler website advises Australians to avoid all areas where protests occur or occur.

A number of public institutions as well as public transport, cultural sites and some schools remain closed. Australian tourists should avoid protests, demonstrations and demonstrations and monitor local media for updates.

The level of counseling in Australia for travelers in Indonesia, including Bali, is "exercise a high degree of caution".

Riot police take defensive positions in central Jakarta.

Riot police take defensive positions in central Jakarta.Credit:AP

Michael Bachelard is The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald's foreign editor and investigator at The Age. He worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as a correspondent in Indonesia. He has written two books and won several journalism awards, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.

Karuni Rompies is corresponding correspondent in Indonesia for Fairfax Media.

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