Guide to the 2019 Indonesian elections: Echoes from elections past

On Wed 17 April 2019, 190 million Indonesian voters will set off to the polls to elect their President and Vice-President. On this day they will also elect 136 members of the national Regions House, a kind of weak Senate, together with 575 members of the powerful House of Representatives. In addition they will elect 2,207 provincial level MPs from the 34 Provinces and also elect 17,610 local councillors across more than 500 local authorities.

This is Part 2 of the Guide to the 2019 Elections Series | Part 1Part 3

Echoes from Elections Past

This presidential election will be, in many ways, a re-run to the election of 2014 with the same two presidential hopefuls facing each other. Those election campaigns were, with little doubt, the most aggressively prosecuted yet. The rise of social media as platforms for fog horning into echo chambers of partisanship and false rumour mongering were already quite evident. Opponents of Mr Jokowi, in a blatant copy-cat attack approach deployed by opponents of Pres Obama in his presidential bids, sought to portray Jokowi as Sino-Indonesian, communist and Catholic1 as well as questioning whether he was a real leader or just a puppet of others. Opponents of Mr Prabowo sought to diminish his eligibility noting he has no wife, raising questions of his military record and concerns about his commitment to democracy.

Issues relating to religion, and in particular the role of the majority religion and its adherents in the public domain, have always been key dynamics within Indonesian politics. These elections will continue to be influenced by this issue. Indeed the dramatic experiences of the 2017 election of Jakarta’s Governor suggest this issue has growing traction as a vote mover. The fallout from this election continues to horrify or embolden (depending on one’s partisan standing) the national political scene. The complexities and dynamics of those elections are worthy of several PhDs. Even so a couple of issues stand out. The then blunt talking Sino-Indonesian Christian Governor of Jakarta faced off against two contenders, each of whom fell over each other to present themselves as guardians of the sensibilities of the faithful in Jakarta where about 85% of the population is Muslim.

A not unrelated issue to that of religious affiliation, as a mover of community sentiment, is the issue of social inequity – often a dog whistle used to remind voters that members of the small Sino-Indonesian community dominate Indonesia’s private sector. The then Governor was in so many ways a lightning rod to all these issues.

A series of massive demonstrations in late 2016 directed against the Governor, replete with demands he be jailed for blasphemy, crippled his campaign and did indeed end up with him being jailed. The scale of those demonstrations spooked the political elite. They were left pondering that today these masses cut down the governor; what about tomorrow – maybe me? For the President and his supporters, the specter of those demonstrations were especially shattering, given the governor had been so close politically to Jokowi.

Of relevance to the upcoming presidential election is that both Vice-presidential candidates were close to those massive demonstrations. KH Mar’uf was among the leaders calling for the prosecution of the Governor, while Mr Uno was successful in being elected vice-governor and thus part of the team that defeated the beleaguered governor.

In opposing the then governor, these various Muslim groups also reflected very different perspectives and understandings. In many respects the two vice-presidential candidates for next year reflect two quite different Islamic communities.

Kyai Haji Mar’uf Amin, now 75 years old, is the leader of the quasi-state Indonesian Muslim Leaders Assembly, and is also head of the governing board of Nahdlatul Ulama (Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organisation). Prior to this he was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council. During the Soeharto era he served in the Jakarta Provincial Council representing the old Islamist party, PPP. With the start of Reformasi in 1998, he moved to support the establishment of the more pluralist PKB, led by former President Wahid. In short KH Mar’uf has impeccable Islamic credentials.

For traditional and rural Muslim voters, he carries considerable authority and religious legitimacy.

For example take “F” a teacher from the north coast of rural Central Java. He did feel offended by comments attributed to the former governor and respects the authority of senior clerics like Mr Mar’uf. At the same time he is suspicious of what he sees as the aggressive and arrogant posturing of those Muslim city people who he believes are just aping the Arabs and do not know or respect their own culture. He believes traditional clerics like Mr Mar’uf represent authentic and competent religious leaders.

Mr Sandiaga Solehuddin Uno, who looks more youthful than his 49 years, is a second generation businessman who has created and built capital market investment vehicles. As he prospered, entering the list of Indonesia’s richest 50 people, he has developed assiduously a reputation for doing good public deeds in terms of religious piety and maintaining a good and healthy lifestyle. To this end he has been active with various Islamic groups, including the progressive Paramadina Foundation.

In many respects he is the poster boy and role model for the aspirational urban Muslim middle class.

Take “T” as an example. She is the first in her family to attend university and has recently graduated as a computer engineer. She does not wear a niqab but has no problem that others do. However she is also the first in her family to wear a white head scarf as she sees this as a key aspect of demonstrating her piety. She is very concerned about a breakdown in community morality and looks forward to one day living in a Muslim housing estate. She believes that only Muslims should lead the country, but says that they need to have a modern education as well.

Looking Towards The Campaign

In the lead up to and during the campaign, we should expect to hear lots of stories about the potential for violence. I have been in Indonesia for the past 6 elections. The only violence I have seen took place in the era before democracy. Experts have been predicting violence since the transitional elections of 1999. Like a broken clock that gets the time right twice a day, the naysayers will one day get it right. In the meantime, however, they will continue to get it wrong. Analysing those previous democratic elections leads me to conclude that I do not expect these elections to degenerate into violence.

The selection of figures who cut across key Islamist groupings as Vice-presidential candidates suggest this will blunt the capacity for this issue to be deployed as a deeply polarising tool for one or other candidates as it was in 2017.

One impact of this could see stresslines move to within the voting groups, especially for the Jokowi-Mar’uf team. Many of those voters who most passionately oppose the use of appeals to sectarian sentiment will see Mr Mar’uf as one who does. While many such people are instinctively drawn towards President Jokowi, they will be unenthusiastic about supporting a ticket that includes Mr Mar’uf. He will need to burnish some credentials as one who embraces Indonesia’s pluralism. This will require considerable dexterity considering he led the team within the Indonesian Muslim Leaders Assembly that declared Religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism to be haram (religiously forbidden) and has also been active in advocating in favour of criminalising sexual minorities and ostracising minority Muslim groups.

One such voter is Mrs “S”. She is a 40 something urbanite with a professional background. She likes President Jokowi and the fact his family seek and gain no special treatment and he has made some effort to reduce corruption. She respects and applauds his success in dealing with the parlous state of infrastructure that for too long has not been improved. At the same time she is extremely uncomfortable with his choice of running mate seeing him as a key promoter of religious intolerance and enabler of the bullying of religious orthodoxy onto the population observing saying she is fed up with these holier than thou puritans telling her to wear a head scarf.

In this regard the pairing of Mr Prabowo and Mr Uno will be seen as a more coherent team by their potential supporters.

Mr “B” is a young family man in his 30s. He is private sector employee in a big city. He was a big fan of Mr Prabowo in 2014 and remains as supportive now. He is worried that China is pushing its military weight around the region including on Indonesia. He is also convinced it is also pushing its peoples into the country through the guise of investment projects and laments that nobody is trying to stop this. He believes it is time the country stood up to this foreign power and believes the only leader willing and able to do so is Mr Prabowo. He thinks his vice presidential running mate will be a good match as he is young and good at business.

One factor that in Indonesia, as elsewhere, can affect prospects for victory is the state of the economy. The Indonesian economy is currently chugging along at a steady albeit unexciting rate about 5% per year. Inflation, by Indonesian historic standards is very low as are interest rates. The budget deficit is within safe limits as are levels of foreign debt. This should give considerable comfort to the supporters of the President. A sudden spike in oil prices might be one point of vulnerability especially should this force the government to raise fuel prices. Fuel price increases do track closely with dips in support for a government.

View or download Kevin Evans’ complete Guide to the 2019 Indonesian Elections (1.64MB pdf)