Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a former furniture manufacturer who rose to national prominence from humble beginnings in Java, was on Tuesday declared the winner of Indonesia’s closely fought presidential election.
After two weeks of counting votes from across the massive archipelago, Indonesia’s election commission determined that Jokowi captured more than 53 percent of the vote, beating his opponent, the former general Prabowo Subianto, by a full 8.4 million votes. Turnout was 70.7 percent as nearly 135 million people cast ballots in Indonesia, which is the third-largest democracy in the world after India and the United States.
Prabowo, however, is expected to challenge the results.
Jokowi is a cathartic figure in Indonesian politics, the first president to emerge from outside of the country’s powerful elite. During his time as mayor of the provincial Javanese city of Surakarta and later governor of Jakarta, he became known as a reformist with a straightforward manner and no-nonsense attitude toward corruption.
“Young children have not been told they can grow up to be president,” Aaron Connelly, research fellow in the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, told VICE News. “Jokowi grew up on the side of a river. Now politics is no longer an elite game — he’s broken the bamboo ceiling.”
Jokowi, 53, is often referred to by his supporters as the “Indonesian Obama.” In garnering nearly 71 million votes, he beat the American president’s 2008 total by about 1.5 million despite being in a country with roughly 67 million fewer people.
Terima kasih Tuhan, terima kasih Rakyat Indonesia. Lupakan No 1, Lupakan No 2, Dahulukan Persatuan Bangsa. Tugas berat menanti kita.— Joko Widodo (@jokowi_do2) July 22, 2014
On Twitter, he struck a conciliatory tone following the announcement, urging his supporters to stay calm, telling them to “Forget No. 1, Forget No. 2, Put the nation first.”
Prabowo, who has consistently been linked to human rights violations committed during the dictator Suharto’s 31-year regime, had focused his campaign on projecting a strongman image and stoking rumors on social media that Jokowi is a Chinese Christian (he’s not).
In a possible effort to cement his credentials in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Jokowi has promised that he would open an Indonesian embassy in the West Bank.
Shortly before the tallies were released, Prabowo told reporters that his campaign had withdrawn from the race, alleging that the July 9 election was plagued by fraud and “massive cheating that is structured and systematic.”
“We reject the 2014 presidential election, which is unlawful, and therefore we withdraw from the ongoing process,” he said.
But after saying on Tuesday they had no legal basis for a legal challenge, Prabowo’s lawyer told reporters Wednesdaythe campaign did in fact plan to contest the elections at Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, a process that could drag into the middle of August.
Prabowo’s maneuver was widely perceived as desperate, following as it did a generally free and fair election. The contest benefited from Indonesia’s accurate polling firms and novel open source technology, developed by an Indonesian tech worker in the US, which allowed electoral districts to upload local tabulations to a public database.
The margin of victory means even if the Constitutional Court found isolated instances of fraud, it likely wouldn’t be enough to overturn the vote. Adding to Prabowo’s woes, his campaign manager, the former Constitutional Court Justice Pak Mahfud, resigned early on Tuesday.
“Jokowi’s victory is legitimized,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in international relations and political science at the Indonesian Defense University in Jakarta, told VICE News. “I think what Prabowo is doing is called a tantrum.”
“I don’t think anything will happen,” he added. “Jokowi will become the next president.”
Prabowo has been angling to lead Indonesia since pro-democracy protests led to the downfall of Suharto in 1998. Sulaiman believes that Prabowo hopes to save face among his supporters by mounting a legal challenge.
Fears of widespread unrest or that Prabowo would call on paramilitary thugs connected to Suharto’s dictatorship to help him seize power haven’t materialized.
“Unless Prabowo pays them to do something really nasty, it is unlikely they will take action,” said Connelly, adding that such groups today mostly do things like wreck bars for rival owners.
The bruising election battle split the country, pitting co-workers and family members against one another. Rumors and innuendo spread on social media and in rural tabloids concerning Jokowi’s purported ties to Chinese-Christian politicians narrowed his once seemingly insurmountable lead in polls to the single digits ahead of the election. The vote initially seemed too close to call, with both candidates declaring victory soon after the election, but the official tally gives Jokowi an evident mandate.
Even with his victory over the elite’s candidate of choice, Jokowi will run up against the entrenched political class in Jakarta. Complicating his task is that among the assortment of political parties in the national legislature, Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle holds less than a fifth of the seats.
“As governor, Jokowi would come to the small towns and slums, and I think that’s what he’s going to do as President, but I’m not sure whether he will be able to confront people in official power,” said Sulaiman. “His problem is still the bloated bureaucracy.”
Jokowi became famous in Jakarta for walking through public offices and summarily firing lazy and corrupt civil servants.
“I don’t think he’ll be able to get away with that at the national level,” said Connelly. “If he starts firing people, there will be protests, and they could hold a lot of his initiatives hostage.”
Among the first planks of Jokowi’s platform is introducing a national healthcare scheme to benefit Indonesia’s poorest. But his campaign has also indicated that he will quickly attempt to reduce the country’s expensive fuel subsidies, a move that has led to social unrest in other parts of the world.
During the campaign, Jokowi’s economic and foreign policies differed little from Prabowo’s. Both of their proposals reflected the growing current of economic nationalism in Indonesia. In January, the government of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono implemented a ban on exporting raw ore from the country. Jokowi has indicated that he will continue to pressure foreign companies, particularly mineral exporters, to maintain the domestic processing of raw materials and other “value-adding” industrial procedures. Some outside investors are fearful that their ventures might prove less profitable under a Jokowi’s government.
Jokowi’s progressivism is tempered when it comes to the environment. Rapid growth in the palm oil industry has lined the pockets of plantation owners while depleting the archipelago’s rainforest at a rate twice as high as the Brazilian Amazon. Arif Havas Oegroseno, who is one of Jokowi’s leading candidates for foreign minister, is known for his close ties to the industry.
As he prepares to assume the presidency in October, Jokowi will have trouble filling his cabinet with people as untouched by corruption as he is, Sulaiman said.
“The people around him, they are not that bad, but they are not really that clean either,” he said.
This article has been updated.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford