To Bind the Nation’s Wounds

Published by the Jakarta Post on Sunday, August 2, 2014. Accessible on

There is a tradition among scholars of American politics to rank the country’s presidents based on their achievements. Surveys ask historians, political scientists and lay people to rate how great a president was.

Although consensus is a rare thing in politics, people interestingly seem to agree that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president the United States has ever had.

Three of Lincoln’s qualities contributed to his high stature before the usually judgmental American public. First, he kept the nation intact during the civil war and maintained people’s belief in democracy. He repeatedly said that the US was an experiment of democracy, a test of whether people could be trusted to govern themselves without the iron hand of a king. He did not want the nation to collapse as it would have meant that the experiment had failed.

Second, Lincoln led the nation to confront and eliminate its darkest side: slavery. He believed that a free country could never be free as long as it allowed people to assume ownership over other people’s freedom.

Third, Lincoln was a man with a big heart. He forgave his political enemies. He even prepared a post-war reconciliation plan full of amnesties for the rebels. His famous saying was, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

If there is a reason I have mentioned Lincoln it is because we might have our own soon. President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is not Lincoln, which is good because we do not want a president that only imitates other people. However, Jokowi might have the three qualities Lincoln had that this country really needs at the moment.

First, Jokowi brought back our sense of belonging in our democracy. His campaign was basically run by volunteers. Young people knocked on doors, musicians hosted free concerts and graphic designers created visually appealing infographics. Just like Lincoln instilled among Americans a belief in democracy, Jokowi also ignited an enthusiasm among Indonesians to take back a democracy long monopolized by elites and oligarchs.

Second, Jokowi shows a commitment to minority rights more than any other candidate this country has ever seen. His official platform explicitly mentioned intolerance as an eminent problem to solve. He also stood by Lurah Susan, a female Christian subdistrict head in Jakarta who was protested against by hard-liners.

Just like Lincoln believed the US could not have a good moral standing among nations as long as slavery reigned, Jokowi’s track record indicates his conviction that Indonesia is not the Indonesia the founding fathers envisioned as long as there are groups of people who are regarded as second-class citizens only because of their faith or skin color.

Third, and most importantly, Jokowi seems to have a heart big enough to reconcile this country. Having undergone what is arguably the dirtiest smear campaign the county has ever witnessed, the former slum child has delivered no revengeful statement. If anything, he gave Prabowo Subianto, his contender, the honor of being the first person mentioned in his victory speech, in which he called the former general “a friend”.

The reconciliation gesture offered by Jokowi, should it be reciprocated by Prabowo, would have a positive effect on the grass roots. The smear campaign made salient all social divisions this country has: Muslims and non-Muslims, Chinese and non-Chinese, military and non-military, even believers and communists. The campaign tore the diversity fabric this country is built on.

No government can effectively run in such a divided society. With the race over, the next demanding work is to repair that torn fabric.

Jokowi might have a heart big enough to forgive, but he cannot heal that wound alone. He will need the help of his former opponent and the whole country.

The darkest moments of the race should have passed and we all should now focus on building the nation and on uniting again that which was torn apart.

Lincoln eloquently expressed this reconciliatory spirit in his second inaugural speech, delivered after the darkest hours of the divisive civil war, “With malice toward none, with charity for all […] let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The writer, a doctoral student in American politics at the University of Notre Dame, is a former summer data analyst at Barack Obama’s presidential campaign headquarters.

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