Commentary: Politics, not policies, to determine the re-run race between Prabowo and Jokowi

Commentary: Politics, not policies, to determine the re-run race between Prabowo and Jokowi

Indonesia President Jokowi and his challenges Prabowo Subianto seem to share many similar policy priorities. Politicking may therefore be the key differentiator, says Klareco Communications’ Tang Wai Leong.

Jokowi and Prabowo
Joko Widodo (right) and Prabowo Subianto during the 2014 presidential election campaign. (Photo: AFP/ROMEO GACAD)

SINGAPORE: Indonesia is poised to hold its presidential and legislative elections simultaneously for the first time in its history on Apr 17.

More attention has been placed on the presidential elections, which will see a re-run of the 2014 race, with incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pit against former general Prabowo Subianto.


Although the candidates for the presidential elections remain the same, dynamics have changed since the last round where Jokowi clinched a narrow victory over Prabowo in a hotly contested election. 

This time, political polls have consistently shown Jokowi to be in the lead, with some suggesting the incumbent president holds a double-digit lead over his opponent.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesia's presidential candidate for the upcoming general election Joko Widodo t
Indonesia's presidential candidate for the upcoming general election Joko Widodo takes pictures with his supporters during his first campaign rally at a stadium in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, Mar 24, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

Jokowi’s lead in the polls should not come as a surprise. While both Jokowi and Prabowo contested in the 2014 elections as candidates without national track records, Jokowi now holds the advantage as the incumbent president with concrete achievements over the last five years. 

He has also strengthened his hand with a populist 2019 state budget that increased civil servants’ pay and dished out benefits to less-privileged households.

READ: Old rivals face off in Indonesia ahead of elections, a commentary

Prabowo appeals to Indonesians who feel that Jokowi has failed to live up to his promises. He has raised questions over rising foreign debt, cost of living, youth unemployment and abrupt policy reversals by the Jokowi administration that has confused businesses and foreign investors. 

The Prabowo camp also features a stronger focus on nationalistic sentiments and identity politics.

Amid the clamour generated from both camps, it is important to differentiate between policies from politics.

Indonesian president candidate Prabowo Subianto (left) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno (right) gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on Sep 23, 2018. (Adek BERRY/AFP)


There are numerous overlaps in the policy priorities identified by both candidates that encapsulate their vision for Indonesia for the next five years.

Addressing inequality feature prominently in both visions. Jokowi’s Indonesia Maju (Indonesia Moving Forward) stresses the importance of alleviating poverty and narrowing the inequality gap. 

He has promised to widen access to funds and scholarships for workers to acquire skills. Religious institutions and sharia finance, including sharia-compliant fintech, will also be tapped to improve financial inclusion.

In a similar vein, Prabowo’s Fair and Prosperous Indonesia platform included a “Ready-to-Work House” programme, offering vocational training to develop skills. Companies that provide internship opportunities for students, especially vocational high-school students, are promised incentives.  

On healthcare, both camps have made promises to ensure that medical coverage remains affordable and services are improved. Jokowi has advocated expanding medical coverage through the existing Healthy Indonesia Card insurance scheme, specifically highlighting stunting as a challenge to be eliminated.

Prabowo has similarly highlighted reducing malnutrition and stunting among children through the “White Revolution”, a programme that aims to tackle malnutrition among children by increasing milk consumption.

FILE PHOTO: Prabowo Subianto, who is Indonesia's presidential candidate for the upcoming gener
Prabowo Subianto, who is Indonesia's presidential candidate for the upcoming general election, speaks during his campaign rally in Bogor, West Java province, Indonesia, Mar 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

Infrastructure development, a major component of Jokowi’s economic development plan in his first term, is expected to remain a priority with slight changes. Jokowi will pay more attention to developing digital infrastructure to develop Indonesia’s digital economy further. Industry 4.0, another key initiative by Jokowi, is also expected to continue as part of efforts to revitalise manufacturing.

Prabowo promised to accelerate rural infrastructure projects, with the central government increasing budget allocations to regional governments.

READ: Indonesia searches for that elusive broad-based growth, a commentary

Both candidates also promised to involve the private sector more in infrastructure development to avoid using public debt to finance projects.


Regardless of the policy visions shared by both camps, the outcome of the elections inevitably rest on the politics at play.

Identity politics, a main concern of many Indonesians and political observers, have been relatively muted in recent months compared to the tensions witnessed at the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election when right-wing Islamic groups mobilised against former Jakarta governor “Ahok”.

Jokowi’s vice president pick, Ma’ruf Amin, is the Chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council and his selection helped Jokowi silent attacks from the opposition on his Islamic credentials. 

However, strong attendance last December at the 212 reunion - the protest that first rallied against Ahok – is a reminder that right-wing groups continue to bid their time and will wait for the right opportunity to snipe at Jokowi.

A supporter of former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama wears a t-shirt of h
A supporter of former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama wears a t-shirt of him near Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob) headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta, January 24, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

Smear campaigns and online fake news that plagued the 2014 elections continue to be an issue in this cycle. Jokowi has been called a communist while Prabowo has been accused of undermining Pancasila, Indonesia’s state ideology, and supporting the establishment of an Indonesian caliphate.

READ: Jokowi’s ban on radical groups and Pancasila’s uncomfortable past, a commentary

Online rumours about ghost voters, falsified ballot boxes and fake papers have also led to Prabowo calling his supporters to guard the polling stations on voting day.

However, efforts to combat fake news have been stepped up recently and the presidential candidates are more prepared now. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have also weeded out suspicious and bogus accounts that propagate malicious content.

Money, or the lack thereof, has also played a significant role. Prabowo’s campaign has been lacklustre compared to the 2014 elections due to a lack of financial resources. 

He has relied mainly on his vice-president pick, Sandiaga Uno, to finance the bulk of the campaign which has allowed Sandiaga to produce campaign collateral that promote his own brand.

The simultaneous occurrence of the presidential and legislative elections also mean that other political parties must reserve some resources for all of their parliamentary candidates.


Despite the brouhaha during campaigning, the upcoming 2019 presidential elections might turn out to be predictable and boring. That might not a bad outcome for businesses and foreign investors who hope for certainty and stability.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters throw balloons as they attend a campaign rally of Indonesia's president
Supporters throw balloons as they attend a campaign rally of Indonesia's presidential candidate for the next general election Joko Widodo at a stadium in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, Mar 24, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

READ: Two visions for the 'unlikely democracy', as Indonesians head to polls this month, a commentary

Assuming Jokowi wins, the real battle begins in 2024 when this new, upcoming term ends, given term limits. 

That contest for the presidency will be fiercer as a new generation of political leaders vie to lead Indonesia.

Tang Wai Leong is an Associate Director of Klareco Communications, who represents clients in Indonesia and provides counsel on strategic communications, public affairs and crisis management. 

Source: CNA/nr