CANBERRA: Indonesian politics in 2018 has been dominated by preparations for elections in 2019, scheduled for Apr 17. In many ways, the election is a re-run of that in 2014.
Once again there are only two presidential candidates, incumbent President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and retired general Prabowo Subianto, and the former is the clear front-runner.
The coalitions behind each candidate are broadly similar to the previous election and issues of development, economic nationalism, inequality, ethnicity and religion again feature prominently in campaigning. But there are some important differences in the political dynamics and election format that add uncertainty to predicting the result this time round.
Since becoming president in October 2014, Jokowi has been single-minded in his pursuit of a second five-year term. His re-election strategy has involved two major elements.
The first has been establishing a reputation for rapid development and economic growth. Jokowi has launched an unprecedented array of infrastructure programmes and instituted major welfare reforms to improve access to health and educational services for the poor.
For most of Jokowi’s presidency, growth has been between 5 to 6 per cent. This is relatively strong in regional terms, but consistently below the targets that the government has set itself.
The second element has been to burnish his Islamic credentials. Jokowi has always felt vulnerable on religious issues. In the 2014 election, Prabowo’s supporters used Islam against Jokowi to suggest he was a closet Christian and a tool of powerful non-Muslim interests.
The "Islam" issue assumed even greater prominence after the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama — the Chinese Christian incumbent and close ally of the President — was defeated after being accused of blasphemy and subject to massive protests by Islamist groups.
Following Ahok’s loss, Jokowi intensified his efforts to cultivate Islamic support, particularly within major organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. For Jokowi, re-election would be jeopardised if either economic development or his Islamic credibility were tarnished.
CANDIDATES UNDER PRESSURE
Prabowo was less preoccupied with contesting the 2019 election than Jokowi. Earlier this year Prabowo suggested that he might not stand and surprised Jokowi by offering to be the President’s running mate. Jokowi rejected the overture.
There are several likely reasons for Prabowo’s reluctance to run again. He lacked funds, badly trailed Jokowi’s electability rating and did not want to finish his political career with yet another loss. But by the middle of the year, his party, Gerindra, was increasingly insistent that he stand again.
Prabowo, whose family has invested millions in Gerindra over the past decade, agreed to do so in large part for Gerindra’s sake. Polls showed that if Prabowo ran, Gerindra is likely to emerge the second-largest party. If he didn’t, it would be just a middling party with little long-term future.
The biggest political drama of the year surrounded the nomination of vice-presidential candidates. Indonesia’s election law requires the nomination of a ticket of presidential and vice-presidential candidates by any party or group of parties that has 20 per cent of seats in parliament or 25 per cent of the national vote.
Jokowi and Prabowo came under pressure from parties in their respective coalitions to choose a running mate from a party other than their own. Each party calculated that they would benefit from having a cadre in the high-profile role of vice-presidential candidate.
Jokowi’s preferred running mate was the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Mahfud MD. But his coalition parties forced him to choose the conservative Islamic scholar, Ma’ruf Amin, who was president of NU and chairman of the powerful Indonesian Ulema Council.
The parties’ reasoning was that Mahfud posed a threat to their own interests. Not beholden to any party and young enough to stand as an independent candidate for the presidency in 2024, Mahfud risked jeopardising the parties’ own plans for that election.
BOTH LEADERS HAS THEIR WEAKNESSES AND STRENGTHS
Prabowo’s handling of the vice-presidential nomination contrasted with Jokowi’s. Despite threats from three of his coalition parties that they would abandon him should he not choose one of their cadre, Prabowo chose then deputy governor of Jakarta and Gerindra party member Sandiaga Uno.
Sandi is one of Indonesia’s most successful non-Chinese businessmen and promised a million-dollar-plus campaign contribution, easing Prabowo’s cash shortage.
At eight months, the campaign period will be the longest in Indonesian history. In the first four months, it has been lacklustre and unedifying. Jokowi is a poor public speaker and Prabowo has appeared at times half-hearted and unfocused. Both candidates’ campaigns rely heavily on social media and the use of negative messaging.
At present it appears to be Jokowi’s election to lose. He has a substantial lead on Prabowo both in approval and more importantly electability. Polling has Jokowi’s electability in the high 40 to low 50 per cent range while Prabowo is in the high 20s to low 30s.
Prabowo will need a major economic upset or political scandal if he is to get within striking distance of the President. But Jokowi is a disciplined and circumspect politician who is unlikely to gift Prabowo opportunities to attack.
Greg Fealy is associate professor of Indonesian politics in the department of political and social change, College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here.