Indonesia goes to the polls

On 17 April, the electorate in Indonesia will go to the polls to vote in presidential, parliamentary and regional elections.

With more than 190 million eligible voters and five ballot papers per person, this is one of the most complex elections in history.

The vote for the country’s leader pits the serving president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), against retired general Prabowo Subianto (“Prabowo”). These two candidates also fought for the presidency in 2014, when Jokowi won 53.15 percent of the vote to Prabowo's 46.85 percent. He looks set to repeat his victory, as the latest reports indicate that he is enjoying a strong lead over his opponent: a study released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in late March put his support rating at 51.4 per cent, a long way ahead of Prabowo on 33.3 per cent.

The issues of major focus in the elections have encompassed social inequality, poverty, unemployment and high inflation. Other important topics highlighted have included corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism and poor infrastructure (the east of Indonesia is much less well developed than the rest of the country). The role of faith in society is another important facet.

The organisation and operation of the elections have also come in for a great deal of scrutiny. The General Elections Committee (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, “KPU”) is responsible for ensuring that elections are carried out in a fair and democratic manner across the country.

From a cyber perspective, many concerns have centred on the security of the KPU’s website, which has been subject to a range of cyber attacks in recent years. Most recently, in March this year, KPU director Arief Budiman claimed there were daily attempts to breach the organisation’s database. He initially said that the attacks had originated in China and Russia, but later modified his statement to announce that local actors had also been involved. A KPU source added that the voter database had been subject to “probing” attacks from IP addresses originating in several countries.

An investigation has also begun into other allegations concerning the functioning and operation of the KPU. In particular, it has been claimed by Prabowo’s campaign team that the data of 17.5 million voters - around 9% of the electorate - shows “abnormalities”. For example, the dates of birth of those voters are heavily weighted towards 31 December, 1 January and 1 July. The KPU responded by pointing out that, in accordance with the legislation, people who register to vote but have forgotten their birthdays and lack official documents will have one of the three dates entered instead of a random one: hence the statistical bias.

Prabowo’s campaign team, meanwhile, said it was highly improbable that nine percent of the 192 million registered voters would have forgotten their dates of birth.

The political analyst Kevin O’Rourke noted that there have been real issues with voter registration lists in Indonesia for some time: one particular problem concerns what he describes as “dysfunction between different authorities overseeing the data”. However, he added: “Organising systematic fraud on a scale capable of swaying the outcome would be virtually impossible to conceal, given the extensive role of election monitoring agencies, observer groups and witnesses from each contestant’s campaign.”

Nevertheless, Prabowo’s team has already announced a likely legal challenge to the results – along with an ominous warning about mass street protests, further increasing the pressure on the KPU to ensure the elections are carried out in a transparent manner.

This reflects a similar situation during the elections in 2014: even before the official winner was proclaimed by the KPU, Prabowo’s team asked for the announcement to be delayed for two weeks to allow time for his party to investigate claimed irregularities in the voting process. In the event, the Court found against Prabowo and eventually upheld Jokowi's victory.

These are not the only allegations of electoral malpractice that have been put forward. One other one moves into the realm of fake news.

A story surfaced in January 2019, when a voice recording spread across social media, alleging that seven containers full of ballot boxes from China had arrived at an Indonesian port. The millions of voting papers inside them were all apparently marked in favour of Jokowi.

The rumours went viral, resulting in the KPU having to issue a statement saying the issues would be investigated, even though it believed the report to be a hoax.

Interestingly, however, it has also been claimed that overseas votes have been tampered with: 40,000 – 50,000 ballot papers were allegedly found inside 20 diplomatic bags in Malaysia, again marked in support of Jokowi. There are 980,000 overseas Indonesian voters in Malaysia, more than in any other country, and these latest accusations could certainly have an impact on the perceptions of the democratic legitimacy of the election. The head of the Kuala Lumpur Elections Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) confirmed that a complaint had been lodged by Prabowo’s campaign team, and that his committee had submitted a report to the police about possible interference in Indonesia’s electoral process.

Predictably, the issue of fake news has led to many news articles or social media posts being denounced as false.

Examples include claims that Jokowi is “pro-Communist” and working to encourage a Chinese “takeover” of Indonesia; he is also accused of hoping to revive Indonesia’s Communist Party, the PKI, which was disbanded in 1966. One post on Twitter read: “NOT A HOAX ... Mr. President Jokowi appointed members of the Chinese Communist Party as advisors ... NOT HOAX”.

Further, it is claimed that he is anti-Muslim – despite the fact that he chose a Muslim cleric as his running mate.

An opposition activist at a 212 Munajat prayer event at the National Monument (Monas) in Central Jakarta recently read out a poem implying that “Indonesia would become a godless society if Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto lost the upcoming presidential election”.

On the other side of the coin, supporters of Jokowi have alleged that Prabowo is a fundamentalist Muslim who aims to establish a caliphate. In fact, Prabowo does not come from a devout Muslim family: his mother was a Catholic, and his Christian brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who is also a member of his campaign team, has confirmed that he could guarantee there would be no attempt to create an Islamic state.

At a recent event, he responded to a question about the support Prabowo has enjoyed from the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and Islam Defenders Front (FPI). He was quoted as saying: “I will tell you ma’am, what is the guarantee that Prabowo will not create a caliphate? I am that guarantee. My Catholic older sister and brother-in-law, they are also the guarantees.”

The accusations against both presidential candidates also tie in with the politicisation of religion, which is another interesting aspect to this election. For example, the United Muslim Cyber Army is a particularly prolific pro-Prabowo religious group on Facebook: it has more than 85,000 members. To join the group (and hence be able to post and comment), the user is asked two questions: 1) What is your religion? 2) Write down the Arabic and Indonesian translations of the Syahada (one of the five pillars of Islam).

Posts made by this group include the following: “Dear Allah, please protect the accounts of the jihadists on social media, and foster in the hearts of the Muslims the passion to protect the religion. Amen. Sorry, you have joined a militant volunteer group for Prabowo-Sandi. If you dislike it, please leave.

How might next week’s elections have an impact on companies and organisations actively engaged in business or other activities in Indonesia? Aside from the need to be aware of possible street demonstrations following any controversies and allegations of foul play over the vote, it is worth remembering that Indonesian cyber security is renowned to be poor, with websites in the country regularly and easily breached. Hacktivists and insurgents concerned with a variety of issues – from perceived electoral malpractice through to allegations of government corruption or religious persecution – may well take the opportunity to launch waves of damaging cyber attacks against a wide variety of targets. Organisations operating in the country are therefore advised to ensure their cyber security practices and defences are fully up-to-date.