With a GDP of more than $1 trillion, a population of 264 million, and diverse natural resources, Indonesia is one of the most dynamic economies in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the region’s most robust democracies. With less than six months until presidential elections in April 2019, the battle lines are already being drawn. As the government fights to maintain the rupiah amid changing global trade conditions, lively public debate emerges over the role of Islam in public life, inequality, foreign debt, and fake news.
The 2019 elections will see a rematch of the 2014 vote. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the nation’s first leader from outside the political and military elite, is once again facing Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant general and establishment figure who chairs the Gerindra Party.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Jokowi remains the favorite; he is ahead in the most recent polls and retains his image as a down-to-earth man of the people. However, despite some success he has not delivered on all his 2014 election promises. In an effort to bolster his religious credentials and appeal to more conservative elements, Jokowi has chosen Ma’ruf Amin – head of the Indonesian Ulema Council and supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization) – as his running partner.
Prabowo offers a strong-man image. As a former military leader, he has credibility on security and promotes a “just” society through economic and political prosperity. There are overlapping themes with Jokowi’s campaign, though no precise policy proposals from either candidate yet. Prabowo’s running mate is Sandiaga Uno, a business entrepreneur who retired as Jakarta’s deputy governor in order to run. Sandiaga has economic credibility and has already shown his appeal to younger voters, who, at 30 percent of the electorate, are crucial to both campaigns.
It’s the Economy, Bodoh
The economy is set to be the central aspect of the election campaign. It is a potential weak spot for Jokowi that Prabowo has already attacked on several fronts. Both candidates are likely to appeal to voters with populist economic policies as solutions to domestic social inequality and a tense global trade environment.
In October, the rupiah fell to its lowest value in more than 20 years, stoking memories of the 1998 financial crisis. The immediate causes of the fall are global events, though a large current account deficit and U.S. denominated debt are underlying factors. The government – supported by the IMF – maintains that the currency issues are not indicative of Indonesia’s economic prospects, but a falling rupiah will impact day-to-day expenses and voters are likely to focus on pocketbook issues.
While Jokowi has made inroads into welfare reform and social support, inequality remains stubbornly high. Money is being set aside by the government for energy and food subsidies. Prabowo has countered, tapping into lingering xenophobic tendencies with pledges to reduce reliance on foreign imports and labor.
Prabowo has also claimed that Indonesia’s foreign debt trajectory will see the country bankrupt by 2030. Indeed, foreign debt has grown by 48 percent under Jokowi, largely due to public infrastructure spending. The government has struggled to rally private sector infrastructure investment and diversify away Chinese infrastructure investment, which has rocketed from $600 million in 2015 to $3.36 billion in 2017. The issue is currently salient across the region, with Malaysia cancelling Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.
Behind the economic nationalism rhetoric, both candidates’ economic prospectus is likely to be more diverse. Jokowi’s track record has shown a strategy of long-term economic investment, reform, and liberalization, including improving infrastructure and increasing Indonesia’s credit rating, alongside populist projects – renationalizing natural resources and implementing energy price controls.
Prabowo’s economic policy may also be influenced by his running mate’s business-friendly position. In both cases there may continue to be an incongruous mix of investment-friendly policies and protectionist moves in the energy, food and fuel sectors.
Religion in Politics
Since his first election campaign, Jokowi has faced repeated criticism over his religious credentials. In recent years political Islam has gained momentum in Indonesia, as groups pursue their interests through legal and democratic channels. These groups had a pivotal role in toppling Jokowi’s ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok, in the 2017 Jakarta gubernational race, in favor of Prabowo ally Anies Basdewan.
Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf Amin as running mate was a thinly-veiled attempt to win conservative voters. But inasmuch as it has neutralized criticism, Jokowi’s base has accused him of selling out. However, Ma’ruf has recently been promoting a more moderate view – “Wasatiyyah Islam” or Islam tengah (centrist Islam) – that promotes the characteristics of balance and tolerance.
Election Issues Reflect Global Trends
Fake news runs rampant across Indonesian social media, especially on WhatsApp. Misinformation has had real-world consequences, including vigilante justice, arrests and riots. Both civil society and the government have attempted to debunk “alternative facts” and close the websites and groups responsible, leaving them vulnerable to accusations that they are silencing opponents and clamping down on free speech.
Money politics and corruption have not yet garnered as much attention as in previous elections. Paying for votes will no doubt remain an issue, as Indonesia is susceptible to the practice of vote-buying based on its history as a patronage society. In elections in June to select governors and district heads, 18 governors and 75 mayors were under investigation for alleged bribery and corruption.
Outlook for the Campaign Period
Neither side has outlined a clear policy program outside their top-line mission statements: Creating a “sovereign and independent nation based on mutual cooperation” from Jokowi/Ma’ruf, and building an Indonesia that is “just, prosperous, politically and economically sovereign, and culturally distinct” from Prabowo/Sandiaga.
The economy is sure to play a major role, and religion may continue to be important. Foreign policy has not been prominent in this, or previous, election campaigns beyond the domestic-related issues of Chinese investment and foreign workers. However, Jokowi has recently become more vocal in international forums on global trade tensions, encouraging nations to work together. This is indicative of Jokowi’s view that Indonesia’s economic fate is tied to regional and global economic performance more generally, despite the rising tones of economic nationalism seen domestically.
Ed Ratcliffe is Head of Research and Advisory at Asia House.