Indonesia’s 2019 Election: Food (Prices) for Thought

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Indonesia’s 2019 Election: Food (Prices) for Thought

The economic debate is heating up as the country approaches its next presidential election.

When President Joko Widodo announced the selection of Islamic cleric elder statesman Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate for next year’s election, the battle lines were drawn. The message – or at least the hope – was that identity politics campaigns of the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2016 would not be replayed for the presidential palace. This would instead be an election on the economy, fought not on the streets of Jakarta in tense demonstrations led by hardline Islamic groups. Rather it will be fought in the country’s pasar, or traditional markets, with the price of staples as ammunition.

Sandiaga Uno, the vice-presidential running mate to Prabowo Subianto, has taken the lead for the opposition. Widodo’s trademark blusukan — unannounced visits to local markets and community centers — was adopted by Uno when he campaigned alongside Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan during the Jakarta election. Uno would appear on paper to be less naturally equipped for the shoe leather campaign. With a background at least elite-adjacent, the cosmopolitan candidate isn’t the “man of the people” type Widodo personifies. Still, he has early on in the race tipped rising food prices as a major concern among voters. Regular visits to markets have validated this, where he holds court with sellers and buyers alike lamenting ever-increasing costs.

These comments have not necessarily always been accurate, and are clearly beginning to grate on the president. Uno has claimed chicken rice is cheaper to buy in Singapore than Jakarta and suggested 100,000 rupiah ($6.81) is now only enough to purchase chilies and onions. For weeks, Widodo has stayed mum on the commentary, preferring to allow campaign proxies to reject these claims. That changed in recent weeks when Widodo visited a market in Bogor, West Java, where he spoke to merchants and said fluctuating prices are in line with the overall macroeconomic shift.

Widodo faces an uphill battle on the economic front. While his finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, has been lauded for the government’s response to the rupiah’s woes, it’s a complicated message to send to the electorate. Like in elections everywhere, how well the government is managing the economy is only relative to how far the family budget stretches. Inflation has stayed stable this year, but anxiety over the job market persists. Here is where Uno is looking for a soft spot to strike.

Uno’s crusade is also telling of the dynamic on the opposition ticket. Subianto and Uno have appeared to have seamlessly divided the campaign, with the presidential candidate seemingly far more comfortable with the hard politics of Jakarta. Prior to the August nomination, deadline rumors swirled Subianto was not fully committed to running. With polling firmly in Widodo’s favor and the costs of mounting a campaign looming over the Subianto clan, a no contest race looked plausible. Now, it’s beginning to look like pre-campaigning for an Uno presidential run in 2024.

Subianto may well be happy with the arrangement. Still more than five months out from the vote, Subianto has been forced to make public apologies in two easily avoidable scandals. The first was a strange attempt by campaign team member Ratna Sarumpaet to blame the effects of facial surgery on pro-Joko Widodo thugs. This incident was widely ridiculed and Subianto was forced to apologize for his support of her and her story.

His second apology, issued last week, is far more threatening to his campaign. He drew the ire of residents in the Central Java district of Boyolali after suggesting those with “Boyolali faces” would not be welcome in the luxury hotels of Jakarta. His point was meant to underline the extreme inequality between the capital and elsewhere in the country, but the clumsy delivery was seen as a slight against the people of Boyolali and saw thousands demonstrate against the candidate.

Central Java voted for Widodo in droves back in 2014, but that shouldn’t matter. Subianto’s campaign has a message — the current government has not done well in managing the economy — and Subianto has failed to deliver that message without insulting would-be voters. Uno, though? While voters wait to hear the substance, the delivery is largely well curated.