Worries over violence as Indonesia heads to polls

Jet Damazo-Santos

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Worries over violence as Indonesia heads to polls
Military, police, and election watchers all say the potential for poll-related violence is particularly high given how tight the race for the presidency is

JAKARTA, Indonesia – On Tuesday, July 8, some Chinese-Indonesians and expatriates will head to the airport for short trips to Singapore or other neighboring countries.

Much of this will be interpreted as the elite taking advantage of Indonesia’s election day holiday on Wednesday, July 9, but many admit privately they would rather be away in case violence breaks out.

“We know of friends who will fly out on Tuesday,” a young Chinese-Indonesian told Rappler over the weekend. Chinese-Indonesians were targeted in the May 1998 riots that led to the downfall of President Suharto, with accounts of hundreds of women being raped.

Similar statements have been heard from expatriates, saying some have ready tickets to fly out in case something happens. While no mass exodus is expected, the comments reflect a fear of what can happen on election day. (Check our live blog for Rappler’s coverage of the Indonesian election.)

‘Losing is not an option’

The campaign season has been relatively safe but worries over security have increased over the past couple of weeks leading up to the election on Wednesday.

The fear is that violence might break out if election results don’t favor former military general Prabowo Subianto – the presidential candidate who has campaigned on a strongman image, and who is now just a few points away from the presidency he has worked towards for more than 10 years now. (READ: The remaking of Prabowo)

When the Straits Times asked Prabowo what he would do if he did not win, “losing is not an option” was the reply.

Shady characters supporting him share this view. The Peoples Movement for a New Indonesia (Gerakan Rakyat Indonesia Baru or GRIB) formed by the notorious Jakarta gang leader Hercules is  a key element of Prabowo’s PR machine, writes Ian Wilson in New Mandala. The article states that one of the goals of GRIB is to “have in place a grassroots network ready to ‘secure’ the result.”

When Wilson asked GRIB’s secretary general what they would do in the event of a Prabowo loss, the response was: “It’s simple, he can’t lose. It would mean the end of us. We’ll do whatever it takes to ensure Prabowo Subianto is the next president of Indonesia.”

Incidents, intimidation

Though far from prevalent, incidents of intimidation and violence have reportedly taken place during the campaign.

On June 6, as the official month-long campaign period was just starting, the Jakarta Globe reported that a neighborhood in Central Jakarta where 90% of the population are of Chinese descent and Christians was visited by a military sergeant checking to see that they would vote for Prabowo.

American journalist Allan Nairn, who has been writing about Prabowo’s undemocratic tendencies, claimed in a recent blog post that Indonesia’s army special forces (Kopassus) — which Prabowo used to lead — and the state intelligence agency (BIN) are involved in a covert operation to influence the presidential election.

The highly divisive election and black propaganda prevalent throughout the campaign has also led to violent incidents, including from Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi’ Widodo’s camp.

On June 24, supporters of both camps clashed in Yogyakarta city in Java after attending separate campaign events. The Jakarta Post reported that the brawl left several injured and the crowd vandalized nearby buildings and motor vehicles.

On July 3, dozens of supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) — Jokowi’s party — reportedly vandalized television station TVOne’s office in Yogyakarta as well. The supporters were infuriated by a TVOne news report that allegedly linked PDI-P with communist groups.

On alert

While Indonesia has already successfully held two peaceful direct presidential elections, the military, police, and election watchers all say the potential for poll-related violence was particularly high this time around given how tight the race for the presidency is. (READ: Indonesia’s presidential election: A primer)

A total of 187 million Indonesian voters face a stark choice between the two candidates – between the old and the new, between an old guard from the traditional elite and a grassroots leader.

In total, about 253,000 police, more than 1 million civilian defense, and 31,000 military police have been deployed to ensure safety throughout the country on election day.  

“If the difference is slim, we have to watch out,” Gen. Budiman, the Army chief of staff, told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday. “If it’s less than 5 percentage points, then we have to be careful. But if it’s more than that, then it’s safe.”

Jokowi’s camp predicts a 6-12 percentage point lead, but the latest survey from one polling institute puts the gap at 3.6 points. (READ: Jokowi rebound? New survey, social media say so)

Budiman said the conflict-prone areas identified are in Java and Sumatra, while Indonesia Police Watch (IPW) said East Java, Yogyakarta, Central Java and Jakarta were prone to violence on election day.

Rika Theo, deputy project coordinator for MataMassa, an application developed by iLab and the Jakarta branch of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) to allow the public to participate in monitoring the election, has also warned of increased “hostility” in the next two days. (READ: Polling problems reported ahead of Indonesia’s crucial vote)

The deputy chief of the Indonesian National Police, Comr. Gen. Badrodin Haiti, acknowledged that a slim margin might trigger disputes on a local level, but doubted that widespread violence would occur.

“The situation is safe and there are no problems. The two potential problems we are aware of during the ‘quiet period’ are political intimidation and money politics, these are the two things that are most likely to occur,” he told Rappler. The quiet period when no campaign activities are allowed runs from June 6-8.

Both camps, however, have played down the possibility of violence. “If Prabowo is truly a firm leader, he can control his allies to ensure peaceful elections,” Anies Baswedan, a spokesman for the Jokowi camp, told Rappler on Monday. – Rappler.com

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