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Indonesia Facing Crucial Election on April 17

By Jan Willem Blankert

8 April 2019

8 April 2019

Next week, 195 million voters in Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, will elect a new president and a number of legislative bodies. Joko Widono (nickname Jokowi) will be the first civilian president to complete his full five-year term in the post-Soeharto era. A significant factor for this achievement has been his strategy to accommodate the military’s interests to keep them on his side. 

According to the latest polls, Jokowi has a 10% lead over retired army general Prabowo Subianto. This may seem a substantial margin but Jokowi had a 20% lead just a month ago. The race is still open, especially when bearing in mind the numerous recent occasions on which opinion polls have made erroneous predictions. 

In 2014, the race was between the same two candidates. Jokowi, a popular governor of Jakarta, ran as a newcomer with no ties to the country’s elite or the army.

The folksy, accessible governor addressed corruption, smoothed the city administration, cleaned up waterways (which helped mitigate flooding), improved public transport and surprised with unannounced spot visits and his can-do mentality.

Prabowo, a product of Indonesia’s elite (former son-in-law of former Indonesian dictator Suharto), who has the unwavering support of conservative Muslim groups, seems to have lost some of the energy with which he campaigned in 2014. But his running mate, successful property tycoon and energetic campaigner Sandiago Uno, makes up for this. Sandiago is gaining support, especially from women and millennials through his digital campaigning.

Religion plays an increasingly important role in Indonesian politics. In 2010 Jokowi was elected governor of Jakarta with a Christian ethnic Chinese, Basuki Tjahaja (nickname “Ahok”, Indonesians love nicknames) as his running mate. Last February, Ahok was released from jail after a two-year sentence for blasphemy. His “blasphemy” was an apparent innocent reference to the Qur’an during a rally when he was in the race for the Jakarta governor’s position in 2016. His remark was heavily targeted by conservative Muslim groups, who, having organized mass demonstrations aiming to prevent Ahok from becoming elected, then campaigned to put him in jail. The same fierce religious groups are the people whose support Prabowo can count on.

Jokowi felt obliged to pick an older, influential Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate this time, to reinforce his Muslim credentials. In the past Jokowi has been accused of not being “Muslim enough” and possibly even being “secretly a Christian”. Ma’ruf Amin has not proven to be a good campaigner. A recent televised debate between the knowledgeable man-of-the-world businessman Sandiago and Yokowi’s running mate exposed the latter’s lack of political acumen in an almost painful way.

Prabowo, assured of the support of conservative Muslims, picked someone credible on economics as his running mate. On the economic side, however, there is not that much to attack Jokowi. Five years ago, he promised 7% economic growth per year but with the world economy slowing and the US-China trade war raging, he should not have too much difficulty to defend the 5% growth during his presidency.

Jokowi is accused of increasing government debt but while true the ratio of government debt to GDP, the indicator that matters, has gone up from just 25% to 30% since 2014. This 30% figure is ultra-low by the standards of the western world and among the lowest in the region. Accusations of “ever higher inflation” seem also overdone with an inflation rate of 3%.

Moreover, with that additional borrowed money, Jokowi has delivered on another campaign promise five years ago: the improvement of infrastructure in hopelessly congested Java as well as between Indonesia’s poorly connected islands. Prabowo attacked Jokowi during a televised debate stating that light-rail trains that have been built are useless, as they do not serve a sufficient number of travellers. Given the extreme degree of congestion of all forms of Java’s transport, whether public or private, this does not sound convincing.

The one point where Jokowi possibly disappoints is in the international arena, although arguably not a top priority for most voters. Jokowi has downgraded the Bali Democracy Forum set up by his predecessor and seems to have taken a back seat in ASEAN.  In 2011, when Indonesia was ASEAN chair, the formidable foreign minister Natalegawa, brokered a dispute between Thailand and Cambodia; and managed to nudge forward the stalled negotiating process with China on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea - negotiations that are still ongoing.

Jokowi’s re-election would reinforce stability and tolerance in Indonesia. His election would also signal to the world that Indonesian voters, when electing their president, value pragmatism performance and good governance higher than tradition and religious purity. 

EU-Indonesia relations are unlikely to change much regardless of who wins. Relations are clouded just now with a dispute over palm oil but once resolved one can expect negotiations to pick up on an EU-Indonesia FTA.

Jan-Willem Blankert is a Senior Associate of the EU-Asia Centre.

Correction: in an earlier version of this article, Prabowo Subianto was incorrectly referred to as the former son-in-law of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono).