There were no surprises in last week’s election, yet there was a lot of excitement. With the various exit polls and quick counts confirming what all the opinion polls had predicted — a landslide win for the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — what was the excitement all about?
The challengers never had a chance. From the very beginning, they were at a disadvantage. The rule of thumb in most democratic countries is that 25 percent of voters automatically vote for the incumbent for no other reason than that he is the sitting president. All he needs is 26 percent more of the vote, then he is a sure winner. An incumbent president has to be very unpopular to lose. SBY has never been unpopular.
In the jargon of the politicos, this is “the equity of the incumbent.” This is the reason constitutional limits are usually imposed on the number of consecutive terms that a president is allowed to serve. Otherwise he will just keep winning election after election.
A boring campaign, of course, also favors the incumbent. So do boring presidential debates. People blame the General Elections Commission (KPU) for its supposed failure to add spice to the presidential and vice presidential debates, but I doubt if the KPU could have done anything to salvage the debates from becoming a cure for insomnia.
Let’s face it: President Yudhoyono can give you reassurance. The challengers are not exciting personalities and they did not have an exciting agenda to sell to the voters. They had no new ideas.
And worse for the challengers, SBY had no buried scandals for them to exhume, nor are there skeletons in his closet for them to expose. He is Indonesia’s “Mr. Clean.”
That is why corruption was not much of an issue this time. There are people who say that Yudhoyono’s anticorruption campaign has faltered in recent months. They also say that it made no difference among the electorate that Yudhoyono did not lift a finger to protect from prosecution and a jail term the father-in-law of his older son. I think they are mistaken: It made a difference. He could not be attacked on this ground.
Normally, in a presidential election like this, the vice presidential candidates also would not matter much — they would just be a decoration added to the personality of the presidential candidate. But it seems to me that this time they really mattered.
Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Jusuf Kalla were probably hurt by their choice of running mates, two former military men who were very much associated with the Suharto era and its record of atrocities and massive human rights violations. The Suharto-era activists who campaigned ferociously against them probably were a factor in the election. In any case, many voters have a robust memory that connects these two former generals with the excesses of that era.
Yudhoyono was himself a high-ranking general during that time, but he has managed to dissociate himself from that dark page of Indonesian history, something that the two other generals, Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, have been unable to do.
On the other hand, Boediono, the former central bank governor and next vice president, was a great help to SBY’s candidacy. Before he was Bank Indonesia governor, he had been a decidedly better coordinating minister for economic affairs than his predecessors, and before that he was a finance minister with reasonable achievements.
By making Boediono his running mate, Yudhoyono sent a strong message to the voters that he was serious about the economy and that he was in a better position than his rivals to do something about the current global economic crisis.
Moreover, the Yudhoyono-Boediono tandem projected an image of predictability. In the minds of voters, the global economic and financial crisis facing the country demanded a cautious leader — not an adventurous or an impulsive one.
As for religion, once again it was a non-issue. There was an attempt to make it an issue — through means that are at times subtle and at times underhanded, as when the rumor was spread that Boediono’s wife was Catholic. Time and again it has been shown that this does not work in Indonesia.
The environment, too, was a non-issue. It should have been, but somehow the KPU failed to bring it up prominently during the debates. But if it had been an issue, it would have given the Yudhoyono-Boediono tandem another advantage. Yudhoyono had a track record of dealing with this issue. The Bali Roadmap toward a new climate-change regime is, after all, an achievement of his administration. On this issue, the challengers are a question mark.
Neither was foreign policy an issue, although again, if it had been, it would have favored Yudhoyono simply because of his personal diplomacy and his rapport with other world leaders, including Kevin Rudd of Australia, Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom and Barack Obama of the United States.
Yudhoyono is an ardent advocate of soft power both internationally and in domestic politics.
Foreign policy obviously was not the strong point of Megawati during her presidency, and in this regard, the vice president was largely untested.
There was some perception among the public that the government had not done enough for overseas workers, or in the Ambalat incident and the Manohara case, but the challengers failed to exploit these.
So what was the excitement all about? People who were bored by the tepid campaign were suddenly rhapsodic when the results showed an Yudhoyono-Boediono landslide. Why?
In the first place, I think, there was a great relief that everything that was expected to happen actually happened. And that nothing went wrong in a political exercise that could have gone awry because of the massive logistical requirements involved.
Second, there was a sense of having done something special. This is, after all, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and yet it can hold an election that consolidates Indonesia’s claim to being the world’s third largest democracy.
It was also very special in another sense: Yudhoyono’s overwhelming mandate trumped even that of Obama. While some 67 million American voters sent Barack Obama to the White House, more than 80 million Indonesian voters gave a second term to Yudhoyono.
And third, I think, is the exuberant anticipation of better things to come in the next five years, especially on the economy.
In 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed over President George Bush by incessantly beating him with the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!” This was the decisive issue here also. Ultimately, that gave Yudhoyono his landslide.
There was no doubt in the minds of the people that during this current tenure, the national economy was in excellent form. It was aiming for dynamic growth when the global economic and financial crisis erupted, sending the world’s biggest economies reeling.
Yet the worst that happened to Indonesia was to see its GDP growth estimate reduced from 6.7 percent to between 4 percent and 4.5 percent this year, while Australia was congratulating itself for a 0.4 percent growth, and Malaysia and Singapore are staring at the prospects of negative growth.
And while consumers in the United States are sitting on their wallets, the Nielsen Company is proclaiming the Indonesian consumer as the most confident in the world.
Something not found in most other countries is obviously at work here in Indonesia. I want to call it SBYnomics.
Being fervently pro-poor, this is the sort of economics that Jeffrey Sachs, the antipoverty warrior, would entirely approve of. And yet it is also decidedly foreign investment friendly and free-trade friendly, which makes Indonesia’s voice very much welcome in global economic forums. It is therefore a carefully balanced approach to the problem of socioeconomic development, one that adheres to what Yudhoyono calls “ jalan tengah ,” the middle way.
Few voters are economists but they have enough common sense not to trust protectionist economics that drive away foreign investment, which creates jobs for the poor. They have enough common sense to trust policies that are already working for their welfare.
This was the gut issue during the election. The issue of the human stomach and how it is going to be filled with food. The issue of economic opportunity. The only issue that mattered. And the one that triggered a landslide of votes for Yudhoyono. That’s the excitement.
Wim Tangkilisan is the president and editor in chief of the Jakarta Globe.