Now for transfer of power in Indonesia

INDONESIA, for the time being, is in a state of limbo. With both presidential candidates claiming victory based on quick counts of votes, an election that promised the country's third democratic transfer of power on July 9 is now mired in uncertainty.

When Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo hinted at his possible victory, citing quick counts from six pollsters, his claim was bolstered by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri at a news conference held at her home.

The Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle chairman was more forthright in her proclamation that "even though this is still in the vote-counting process, we already can say that Mr Joko will be president".

In a close race, a loser is unlikely to accept the quick count as authoritative. Unsurprisingly, Mr Joko's rival, Mr Prabowo Subianto, quickly countered that he would not yield, referring to polling data indicating that he had an approximate lead of 2.5 percentage points.

For Javanese, maintaining harmony and showing respect is very important. The concept of "saving face", to show respect and maintain harmony in any situation, is important.

So it is instructive to contrast Ms Megawati's more assertive statement with the hopeful tone of Mr Joko, who preferred to hint rather than make an outright statement, saying: "According to quick counts, Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla look to have won."

Though polite, refined and cultured, Ms Megawati was uncharacteristically straightforward in demonstrating her authority. After all, it was she who stepped aside in March and appointed Mr Joko as the party's presidential candidate. Javanese culture is highly contextual and you have to read between the lines.

She is not trying to avoid a confrontation by trying to save Mr Prabowo's face. She wanted to assert her authority as the new power behind the throne. Perhaps that demonstration of her power may be what elicited such a strong reaction from the former army general.

However, it is important to place things in proper perspective. It was not just a signal to Mr Prabowo; more importantly, it is an indirect indication to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of what is to come and who now wields real power in Indonesia.

Just before the start of the presidential campaign, the Indonesian military commented that a Jokowi-Kalla win by a margin of less than 5 per cent could lead to disturbances, particularly in key cities where Islamic militants have grown vociferous over the past few months.

The security forces have factored into their assessment the possibility of sporadic violence between the time the official results are announced by the National Election Commission on July 22 and the period from Aug 22 to 24, when the Constitutional Court rules on election-related disputes.

Yet, all this is merely a sideshow. Ms Megawati and Mr Joko can defuse the situation easily by offering Mr Prabowo's Gerindra Party a place in a newly constituted coalition.

The coalition supporting Mr Joko's presidency only controls 207 seats in Indonesia's 560-seat People's Representative Assembly (DPR).

To ensure that Mr Joko's policies are not hindered by an uncooperative DPR, a new coalition will have to be formed before the new parliament's first sitting.

Over the course of the next few months, the oligarchs who are part of the Prabowo coalition will start to defect. The first movers could be the Golkar Party.

Expect to see a leadership struggle there as Mr Joko's running mate, Mr Kalla, plans to regain control of the party by ousting chairman Aburizal Bakrie.

A move by Islamic parties such as the National Mandate Party and the United Development Party into the newly reconstituted coalition could also help strengthen Mr Joko's networks with the modernist Muslim community.

As the oligarchs jostle for position and attempt to divide up the spoils, where will Mr Joko, the president-in-waiting, be in the power equation? Having no personal power base, in the short to medium term, he will be dependent on the protection and support of the oligarchs close to him - Ms Megawati, Mr Kalla and possibly media tycoon Surya Paloh.

Initially, he will have to bide his time and consolidate his position before he can build an effective power base.

The attractiveness of Mr Joko's story, with its humble background and grassroots approach, is that a person aspiring to high office no longer needs to have links to Indonesia's authoritarian past or be part of the elite.

The jury is still out on whether Mr Joko will be able to assert his power and dominate Indonesia's unwieldy political system without becoming an oligarch.

However, the test for Indonesia's political system is not the uncertainty surrounding disputes between Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo over the validity of the quick count. Rather, it is the battle lines now being drawn between Ms Megawati and Dr Yudhoyono as his presidency winds down.

How quickly will Mr Joko be expected to act on corruption cases closely linked to the palace? Will the issue be settled before President Yudhoyono completes his term and the seventh president takes office on Oct 20? These questions are central to a stable transfer of power.

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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