Rematch: Joko, Prabowo and the democracy experiment

The Indonesian president and opposition leader will again vie for the presidency. But five years on, they face a vastly different voter landscape

Rematch: Joko, Prabowo and the democracy experiment

On April 17, Indonesians will once again flock to the polls for presidential and legislative elections. These will be the fifth democratic elections since the fall of the authoritarian Soeharto regime in 1998. Looking back to the time when the country embarked on its democratization project, much has been achieved, yet some challenges remain. 

The upcoming presidential election is a rematch of the one in 2014 in which President Joko Widodo narrowly defeated – by 4 percentage points – Prabowo Subianto, the retired army general who was implicated in human rights abuses in events that led to the fall of Soeharto. Such a narrow margin has enabled the formation of a political divide within the Indonesian electorate and created two camps: supporters of Joko and of Prabowo. The latter has since been able to transform himself into a more confident candidate than he was in 2014. 

Against this backdrop, what can we expect in general terms to happen in 2019 and beyond? Looking at three key political trends that have been discernible in the past four years might be useful in finding the answer(s) to this question. 

Mass politics 

Well into the second year of his presidency, "Jokowi" was able to gain the upper hand over the political establishment. By 2016, his approval rating had been consistently high, between 70 and 80 percent. For example, 66.5 percent of the respondents in one CSIS survey in August 2016 stated that they were satisfied with his performance. It was an increase of more than 15 percent from a CSIS survey the previous year. Joko’s win in 2014 caught many by surprise, given that he was not the leader of any of the political parties that nominated him. 

In a presidential system that is combined with a fragmented multiparty system, this in fact spells trouble. Yet, Joko was able to help the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and its coalition tip the balance in the House of Representatives (DPR), from being the minority to becoming the majority. Two opposition parties, Golkar and the National Mandate Party (PAN), switched camps and joined the governing coalition. Joko had tamed the recalcitrant DPR, leaving only the Prabowo-led Gerindra Party and the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in opposition. As a result, Joko rightly had two reasons to be confident about his power throughout the second year of his presidency: a consistently high level of public support, as confirmed by various opinion polls, and the changing command of seats in the DPR that now favored him. 

However, this atmosphere of confidence changed in the last two months of 2016. The cause of this change were two massive demonstrations that took place in central Jakarta on Nov 4 and Dec 2, known as the 411 and 212 movements, respectively. These two large-scale demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people marching, proved to be politically and constitutionally challenging for Indonesia’s fledgling democracy. The two events indicated that two sensitive issues remained to be solved: the relationship between the state and religion, and the question of the place of ethnic/religious minorities within the Indonesian political landscape. 

A blasphemy accusation against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnic Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, had triggered the two rallies. They occurred a few months before the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election and eventually ruined Purnama’s re-election bid. Purnama was considered a “double minority,” being Christian and Indonesian-Chinese. Shortly after his election defeat, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. 

The issue could have been confined to the Jakarta gubernatorial election, or it could have been limited to a political challenge for Joko, given that Purnama was among a small circle that the president trusted. But the rallies turned out to involve too many political players and interests. While on the surface they looked like mass organization-based demonstrations, the involvement of different members of the elite who were willing to play the religion and ethnicity cards for political benefit cannot be discounted. Prabowo, his party, Gerindra, and the PKS have been actively courting the political groups that played a leading role in mobilizing the demonstrators in 2016. 

The issue becomes more complicated because of the debates that followed the rallies, pitting Muslims against non-Muslims, the effect of which was felt beyond Jakarta. The masses demanded that Purnama not be allowed to run in the February 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. In other words, trial by the masses was effectively at work. It also has brought fresh debate over the relationship between the state and religion, and more specifically whether or not Indonesia’s non- Muslims can be elected leaders. The Indonesian Constitution, as the main reference point, clearly states that the country was founded as a pluralist society where freedom is guaranteed regardless of religion or ethnicity. 

Interestingly, electoral data from national and regional legislative elections in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 show that the share of votes garnered by Indonesia’s Islamic-based parties has been stagnating, if not declining. On the other hand, various opinion surveys in the past five years found an upward trend for conservatism in Indonesia, which probably peaked with the two massive demonstrations in late 2016. 

Why do we see these two opposing trends? It is a symptom of failed political institutionalization. Indonesian Islamic parties have failed to capture the energy of this relative conservatism. The politics are yet to be mainstreamed in Parliament and are still prone to spilling over into the streets, where mass mobilization, not discourse, is the norm. And not only the Islamic parties – all parties seem unable to earn the trust of the electorate, the result of which is that they are seeking leadership support from non-party individuals. 

The return of identity politics 

In retrospect, the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election was certainly a political event that will haunt the country for some time. It was the first election of any kind in which, according to the approval ratings up until polling day, voters thought that the incumbent, Purnama, performed well in governing the capital, but said “no thanks” to his re-election bid. 

He was accused of something unrelated to his governing skills: blaspheming Islam by inadvertently misinterpreting a verse from the Koran. From then on, Purnama became a punching bag for his political opponents. There are deeper consequences of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. The election was ugly in the sense that Purnama’s right to be elected was in essence denied by various calls, through banners, sermons and other means including massive demonstrations and through social media, not to vote a non-Muslim Indonesian into high office. The other candidates in the election were not brave enough to confront their supporters who subscribed to those calls and remind them that it was not a fair way to win an election.  

In early December 2018, a mass rally took place under the pretext of it being a “big reunion” of those who attended the rally in December 2016. Prabowo and his party coalition denied any direct involvement. Prabowo, however, made it clear that he was certainly trying to capitalize on the “reunion

Trial by the masses has been effectively at work.

event” for his political benefit by attending. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who defeated Purnama in 2017, was also present. 

The impact of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election cannot be downplayed. CSIS national opinion polls in October 2017 and September 2018 tried to measure the effect of the Jakarta election at the national level, among Indonesian voters who live outside Jakarta. One question that was asked was, “If you were eligible to vote in the runoff of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, would you have voted for Ahok or Anies?” To this question, the response consistently favored Anies Baswedan, at around 60 percent. The unusually long campaign period leading up to the forthcoming presidential election has witnessed rhetoric that uses religious and political identity against the incumbent, Joko. Throughout the campaign, the opposition camp has tried to portray the president as “less Islamic” than Prabowo, who has been portrayed as representing true Islamic voters. One whisper campaign went as far as baselessly accusing the president of being a member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party, blamed for a failed coup in 1965.

The question that is worth pondering out of these events since 2016 is: what do we make of the so-called moderate Muslims, and is this a conservative Islamic turn in Indonesia? Answering this difficult question requires a thorough rethinking of what we mean by “moderates.” 

My hypothesis is that if we use a scale of one to 10 for Islam-based groups, with one being the most conservative, such as groups like the Islamic Defenders Front that were actively involved in orchestrating the 2016 rallies, and 10 being the most liberal, such as the Islamic Liberal Network, by definition the moderates should be in the middle of the scale, at five. However, it seems that many people have wrongly equated the moderates with those groups at number 10, who in the sociological context of Islam in Indonesia are in fact the most liberal and the polar opposite of the most conservative groups at number one on the scale. 

I would assume that during election cycles as competitive as the ones in 2014 and 2019, most Indonesian Muslims are at three, four and five on the scale, meaning that they are more open to the narratives of the conservatives than of the liberals. This, however, does not necessarily mean that they are in agreement with the conservatives. At other times, most Indonesian Muslims will probably be at five, six or seven on the scale. The pendulum keeps swinging. It must be noted that in February 2017, at the same time as the Jakarta gubernatorial election, 100 other regional elections simultaneously took place across Indonesia at the provincial, district and city level. These 100 other elections took place peacefully with no mass mobilizations, and the same Islamic parties that called on their supporters in Jakarta not to vote for a non-Muslim even nominated non- Muslims in elections in some regions.

Beginning in 2017, Indonesia adopted a system of simultaneous regional elections. The largest one was in 2018, in 171 regions involving approximately 160 million eligible voters at the provincial, district and city level. Among the provinces that had gubernatorial elections in 2018, five of them are among the country’s largest provinces and are considered important for the 2019 election, given their geography and number of voters. They are North Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, East Java and South Sulawesi. Of the 575 seats at the DPR, 91 seats will be allocated to West Java, 77 to Central Java, 87 to East Java, 30 to North Sumatra and 24 to South Sulawesi. For political parties and would-be presidential candidates, these provinces are too important not to be won. In addition, more than 60 percent of eligible voters live in these provinces, especially those in Java. If anything, the 2018 regional elections were the window through which we can also think about what is likely to happen in the 2019 elections and beyond. The next section of this essay will ponder this issue. 

The rise of urban leadership 

One of the ambitious democratization projects that Indonesia has decided to conduct since the reform era started in 1998 is the decentralization/regional autonomy program. This program has altered the structure of governance. Power that was decentralized to more than 500 districts, cities and provinces across Indonesia. Indonesia went even further in 2004, beginning direct presidential elections, and then in 2005 by introducing direct local elections. Voters in the regions now directly elect their governors, district chiefs and mayors. As a result, the distance between rulers and the ruled was substantially shortened. In the past, local leaders were appointed by the central government in Jakarta; voters had no say whatsoever. 

Slowly but surely, good local leaders who experimented with principles of good governance, transparency, good local budgeting and public participation have emerged in some areas. They understand that health care, education and local infrastructure are the top priorities of their voters. 

President Joko is a member of the first batch of this new generation of directly elected local leaders. He was elected for the first time as the mayor of Solo, in Central Java, in 2005. Voters across Indonesia are learning too. They are starting to compare and contrast their local leaders with successful leaders in other regions. Some “benchmarking effects” have occurred lately. Voters want their local leaders to share similar characteristics with successful leaders in neighboring provinces, districts or cities. Local leaders themselves have started to realize that they are no longer being observed by passive voters, but rather by critical ones who demand that leaders be able to solve urban problems such as flooding, traffic, ineffective local bureaucracies, environmental challenges, quality of education and public health facilities.

Indonesia’s regions – and not Jakarta – are the new
reservoir and training ground for national leadership

The trend of the rise of urban leadership, in my opinion, emerged in the 2014 presidential election that elevated Joko from Jakarta governor to the presidency. 

The results of the 2018 simultaneous regional elections indicated that the trend is continuing, that Indonesian voters want different qualities in their leaders. In four of the five largest provinces (West Java, Central Java, East Java and South Sulawesi) that had gubernatorial elections in 2018, candidates with technocratic backgrounds won. Ridwan Kamil, an accomplished architect and mayor of Bandung, in West Java, won its gubernatorial poll. Ganjar Pranowo, the incumbent in Central Java, was re-elected; Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a former cabinet minister, won in East Java; and Nurdin Abdullah, an academic- cum-engineer and district chief of Bantaeng, South Sulawesi, won the gubernatorial election in that province. They defeated rivals who were backed by well-entrenched political patronage networks, family political dynasties and old- school political parties in their respective provinces. 

What is politically interesting is that these new governors have announced they will fully support President Joko in the 2019 presidential election. Other governors, mayors and district chiefs have followed suit. One plausible political explanation for this is that many local leaders understand the trend started by Joko, that Indonesia’s regions – and not Jakarta – are the new reservoir and training ground for national leadership, because there is also a new generation of voters. This new generation cares about the delivery of public services. For this reason, the new generation of leaders wants to maintain this momentum, and perhaps run for the presidency themselves in 2024 or beyond. For this to happen, the presence of an incumbent in 2024 is the last thing they want. The re-election of Joko is therefore their preferred scenario, because of Indonesia’s two-term constitutional limit. If there is no incumbent in 2024 (ie, Prabowo), the political arena will be wide open for them to run. That would be a truly generational change and a massive political transformation for Indonesia, continuing what was started in 1998. 

While Prabowo’s flirtation with Islamic conservatives during the past two years may bring him some electoral benefit, the other undercurrent and significant trend involving the emergence of urban-like voters who could care less about the rhetoric of identity politics and are more interested in public service delivery, and also the rise of urban leadership, cannot be discounted. The latter seems, so far, to work in favor of Joko. That said the jury is still out. This essay does not intend to predict who will win, but rather lay out in broad strokes the general electoral trends in a democratizing Indonesia. Rest assured that whoever comes out on top, it will be interesting times ahead for Indonesia.


Philips J Vermonte is executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.

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