Over the weekend, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who is up for reelection in April polls, generated headlines when he implied that foreign influences were at play in the opposition camp led by Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi’s comments and the fallout that followed once again put the focus on the ‘foreign influence’ factor in Indonesian politics, which is set to be among the issues in the mix as the Southeast Asian state nears its election date later this year.
Not unlike some other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the focus on programs and policies, the dynamics of Indonesian elections are often rooted in a range of other factors, including personalities, narratives, and patronage politics. Nonetheless, a theme that has recurred in recent years has been the role of ‘foreign influence,’ including how they affect the country’s autonomy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity and how politicians are both influenced by them and attempt to influence them.
Of course, the theme of foreign influence is a broad and flexible one that can be cut several ways. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on several notable areas, from the perception of foreign companies unfairly exploiting the country’s resources (a variant of ‘economic nationalism’) to the ‘China factor’ – particularly the perceived flood of Chinese workers into the country.
The 2019 presidential elections has been no different in this regard. Indeed, we have already seen this theme of foreign influence cut several ways – at times with little concern for accuracy – from various aspects of China-Indonesia relations to the nationalization of assets at the expense of foreign companies such Freeport. There have also been suggestions about foreign consultants being hired from other countries for both sides, with a focus on not just the expertise being brought to bear but potential influences and biases at play.
Last weekend, we saw an intensification of the focus on foreign influence in Indonesia’s elections. While fending off accusations from the Prabowo camp of him being a ‘foreign puppet,’ Jokowi, during remarks in Surabaya on Sunday, suggested that another campaign was spreading hateful propaganda with the help of a foreign consultant.
Jokowi did not mention Prabowo by name and did not cite the country where the foreign consultant came from. But the fact that the election is a virtual head-to-head contest and that he had referred previously to Russian propaganda made things clear enough for this to make headlines. The comments unsurprisingly drew not only denials from the Prabowo camp, but also a statement by Russia’s Ambassador to Indonesia denying that Russia intervened in the domestic affairs of any country including Indonesia.
The fallout from the incident certainly attracted attention both within Indonesia and abroad. That is not surprising given not just the foreign influence factor in Indonesian elections more generally, but also the suggestions of Russian election interference in other countries, including the United States, as well as allegations of foreign power involvement in elections in other cases in Southeast Asia, with China’s role in Cambodia’s general elections last year being just one case in point.
But beyond the hype, it is also worth recalling that this aspect of foreign influence is just one among many in the Indonesian presidential elections. Both the Jokowi and the Prabowo camps have been focusing on various aspects of this, and among them, the notion of Russian interference is hardly the one with the greatest degree of traction as of now. Jokowi himself has also predictably backtracked on the Russia factor as well, noting that his mention of Russian propaganda had nothing to do with the Russian state per se.
How exactly the foreign influence factor plays into the election up to the polls in April will continue to be interesting to watch. This includes not just the regular campaign events they have scheduled as well as other messaging pushed out by both camps, but also the next few iterations of Indonesia’s presidential debates, especially the one focused on foreign and security policy towards the end of March featuring the candidates and their running maters just weeks before the elections. Given how close and down to the wire Indonesia’s 2014 election was, there is still a long way to go.