INDONESIA’S 2019 General Election, which saw a rematch between incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto, offers a few takeaways that are perhaps more interesting to Malaysia than the republic’s other neighbours.

First, Malaysia remains in the orbit of Indonesia’s election consciousness. The trend emerged last year when Pakatan Harapan’s election victory was absorbed into the narratives of Indonesia’s competing political camps — supporters of both presidential candidates — to shore up support from voters.

Malaysia was also a regular feature in all five presidential debates between Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno. Although brief, Malaysia was often referenced to positively in association with its tax ratio, the management of oil palm plantations and especially the success of its infrastructure projects. This suggests that both sides at the very least aspired to emulate Malaysia’s successes.

But it was in the week before the election that Malaysia became Indonesia’s media darling. The shocking discovery of sacks of punctured ballots — distributed for postal voting in Kajang and Bangi — seemed to confirm the narrative by Prabowo’s camp that the incumbent was stealing the election.

The attention given to Malaysia in Indonesia’s political discourse does not necessarily indicate an improvement in relations between the two. As indicated, Malaysia gets highlighted only when it serves Indonesia’s local narratives or when something sensational flares up.

Furthermore, Malaysia as an aspect in Indonesia’s election dynamics is not new, but it appears less confrontational this year. Compared with the 2009 elections, for example, this time neither presidential hopefuls threatened war over border disputes or demonised Malaysia as a tactic to garner votes, despite the seductive allure of projecting a strongman character.

Second, the elections brought back the subject of political violence. Political violence in the world’s third largest democracy is a rather popular subject among Malaysians I have interacted with — people are often intrigued by the parallels between Indonesia’s Reformasi events in May 1998 and Malaysia’s May 13, 1969 incident.

The concern that the 2019 elections would instigate chaos in Indonesia was not without reason: the campaign period had perceivably polarised society and rendered the public space toxic, both offline and online. It goes without saying that post-election instability in Malaysia’s closest neighbour would have triggered insecurities on Putrajaya’s part too.

This anxiety proved inflated, nevertheless. The elections, which involved over 192 million voters and over 250,000 candidates running for five levels of government, were largely smooth and peaceful considering the scale, despite logistical irregularities in several areas.

Was there blood spilled? A scuffle did break out in Sampang, Madura. Larger-scale violence occurred only during unrest in several cities and Central Jakarta following the announcement of the results, which resulted in the deaths of nine people.

Yet these cases are small compared to the gravity of demonstrations throughout Indonesia in May 1998. Certainly, they are not representative enough as a signifier to label the entire election process as “bloody”.

Is this a sign of Indonesia’s political maturity? Perhaps. The people I interacted with in Jakarta on voting day unanimously expressed a solo desire: For this entire process to be peaceful.

Other factors count, too, such as the psychological fatigue following a long, contentious campaign, the government and the police’s handling of the unrest as well as the inhibitive effect of Ramadan.

But this does not mean political violence will not be repeated in the future. Some narratives that circulated, unfortunately, reinforced an underlying distrust of the country’s institutions, including pollsters, the election committee, police and even the elected government. An expanding deficit of legitimacy in these institutions could set the stage for a future contestation that results in violence and disorder — something that the upcoming government must keep on its radar.

Third, the reform process under the framework of democratisation could be a hit-or-miss matter. More than 20 years since Reformasi rolled out, Indonesia’s election system continues to be wracked by inefficiency to some extent.

The decision to converge elections at five levels of governance on a single day was meant to mitigate some of these inefficiencies. In reality, logistical and administrative problems still occurred, delaying the voting process in some areas such as Papua.

Worse, the simultaneous nature of the elections meant officers in charge had to work extra hours non-stop to see through the process of managing stations and counting ballots, which could have lasted until midnight or the next day.

The exhaustion from this process claimed not a few lives. Until May 16, at least 527 election officers reportedly died, while 11,239 fell ill. Reports have also shown that a number of pregnant officers suffered miscarriages.

As Malaysia has also embarked on electoral reform, perhaps its citizens must acknowledge that it is not a straightforward process. Major hiccups such as what Indonesia experienced recently are always a possibility, especially if assumptions and calculations are off the mark.

Of course, Malaysia might never have to face these difficulties. However, it would be best if citizens could moderate their expectations of what the government can and cannot realistically achieve.

Discussion about Indonesia’s 2019 elections in Malaysia does not have to be confined to the winning candidates. If we look closer, the elections could help us learn a few lessons, answer some of our questions and expose how Indonesia perceives Malaysia lately. All these ultimately could help Malaysia navigate bilateral relations in the future.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on June 24, 2019

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