Indonesia just dodged a bullet. Or did it?

It appears Joko Widodo has won Indonesia's presidency over former general and Suharto stalwart Prabowo Subianto. But that doesn't mean Indonesia is on easy street.

By , Staff writer

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    Indonesia presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo poses with members of the media after a news conference in Jakarta July 10, 2014. Jokowi was named the winner of Wednesday's disputed election by several non-partisan pollsters who have been accurate in the past. Both Jokowi and rival candidate, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed victory in the election, the closest ever such contest in the world's third biggest democracy. The Elections Commission is to announce the official result around July 22.
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A dirty and bitterly fought Indonesian presidential election appears to have ended in victory for the plucky outsider with a reputation as a corruption fighter, over a past stalwart of the country's former dictator.

That may mean the country has dodged a bullet.

But emphasis on "may." The vote was close and official results aren't scheduled for release until after July 20. The presumed narrow victory for Joko Widodo, a former furniture seller from Central Java, is according only to pollsters who have proven reliable and non-partisan in the past. His defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto, the former head of the country's notorious Kopassus special forces unit, has vowed not to go down without a fight.

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Mr. Subianto, who was involved in the kidnapping and torture of democracy activists in the 1990s, says polls of his own show that he won the election. The country's current leader, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is not taking many chances. The government has ordered 250,000 police officers to be on high alert against potential violence between rival camps.

But if the result holds up, Indonesian voters will have ratified an important symbolic break with the past, and just maybe given their country a base to press forward from the stunning political and economic gains it has achieved in the past decade under Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired general who helped lead the country out of economic collapse and political turmoil. 

A stark choice

With Yudhoyono term-limited out, the election in the world's fourth largest country boiled down to a stark choice. Mr. Widodo, or Jokowi as he's popularly known, rose from obscurity as mayor of his hometown to take the governorship of Indonesia's Jakarta capital region two years ago. His success was due to a reputation as a hands-on problem-solver and a humble man of the people, untainted by the political corruption that runs rampant through almost all of the nation's political parties.

Prabowo's near-victory, on the other hand, was due largely to his ties to the ancien régime, both military and financial. His father Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, a famous economist who helped right Indonesia's finances after the former dictator Suharto seized power and orchestrated a bloody coup in 1965, instilled in Prabowo from an early age the belief that he was born to rule Indonesia. The family has been planning his route to power for decades.

Prabowo had enormous financial backing from members of Golkar, the political party machine that Suharto used to rule Indonesia for most of his 30 years in power, and from his own brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who amassed a fortune during the closing decades of Suharto's new order.

Prabowo's martial style on the stump – all projections of strength and promises to flex Indonesia's muscles internationally in the name of national dignity and greatness – appealed to many voters and certainly many members of Indonesia's military, which still plays an outsized role in politics. The political party he founded to back his campaign is called the "Great Indonesia Movement." 

He also had the backing of two powerful street movements, the Islamic Defenders Front and the Pancasila Youth, groups with close ties to Indonesia's security apparatus in the Suharto years and thuggish reputations. Rocker Ahmed Dhani (the original version of this story called him a "heavy metal musician" and some Indonesian music fans complained; on reflection, I must concede they're right.), a member of Prabowo's party, famously made a music video for the campaign in which he wore a Nazi uniform.

Due to his involvement in the abduction and killing of activists in the Suharto years and in heavy repression in the former Indonesian province of East Timor, Prabowo was blacklisted from receiving a US visa after the old government fell.

So a Prabowo victory would be a return to the past. The political patronage networks that never really went away would take on new luster, and the prospects of reinvigorating military meddling in the nation's political life would have almost certainly increased.

Contending with oligarchs, economy 

Jokowi is the anti-Prabowo, slender rather than barrel chested, often clad in a simple checked shirt rather than the military uniforms and safari suits favored by Prabowo, speaking softly and like a technocrat rather than shouting exhortations to national greatness.

But this doesn't mean he's going to transform the country, or even keep the country on the path of prosperity it's experienced in the past decade, with GDP growing by over 5 percent each year. While Jokowi's rise has been remarkably untainted by personal corruption scandals, he has also relied on the powers of the past to get past the post. His running mate is Jusuf Kalla, a past-chairman of Golkar and former vice president who has been implicated in a number of corruption scandals.

Jokowi will also have to contend with parliament, which former Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono told me last year has been "completely captured by the oligarchs." Indonesian politics since Suharto has been strangely ideology free. There is little to chose between Golkar, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle that backed Jokowi, or even the nominally Islamist parties in parliament. All seem dedicated to the distribution of patronage to their friends and political backers, and their interests unsurprisingly don't always align with the welfare of Indonesia as a whole.

And then there are the structural problems. Indonesia's economic boom has been fed in large part by a vast increase in natural resources exploitation. The country has become one of the largest suppliers of pulp and paper, palm oil, and coal to the world. But there's a limit to that kind of resource-led growth, and the country has made insufficient investments in education and infrastructure. The country's economy is slowing at the moment, and there are no quick fixes.

Suharto's regime was frequently brutal and its corruption legendary. But the uprising that drove him from power in 1998 only came after a spectacular economic collapse that was fueled by the way the nation's banking system had been turned into a personal piggy bank for the powerful. There is no guarantee that Indonesia's latest boom won't eventually go bust either.

For now, Indonesia is the world's greatest democratic success story in at least the past decade and the country has made impressive strides. Between the two candidates, Jokowi was clearly the best to consolidate gains made. But one only needs to look north across the South China Sea to Thailand for a reminder that young democracies can be brittle things, and that generals don't give up easy when they've acquired a taste for power.

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