On 27 June 2018, in 171 regions across Indonesia, voters will elect their local leaders in simultaneous direct elections known as Pilkada. Pilkada are usually seen as highly localised affairs that have little connection to, or bearing upon, national politics. But this year’s Pilkada take place less than a year out from the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections and just months before the deadline for parties to nominate presidential candidates. As a result, some pundits have framed these elections as a barometer for the national political mood. But such characterisations exaggerate the implications of these Pilkada for 2019.
During the early stages of these Pilkada, there was much speculation about whether parties would form their coalitions at the local level based on national political calculations leading into the 2019 elections. The two parties in opposition, The Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), together with the National Mandate Party (PAN), did indeed set out to form a ‘solid coalition’ in the Pilkada, which they planned to maintain for next year’s presidential race against incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi).
These parties were core members of the coalition that supported Prabowo Subianto’s bid for the presidency in 2014. They also formed an effective political alliance to defeat Jakarta’s incumbent governor and Jokowi ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. In the 2017 campaign, this coalition allied with fringe Islamist groups, who proved crucial in orchestrating the sectarian campaign that led to Ahok’s downfall. The coalition claimed that it would ‘copy and paste’ the strategies used in Jakarta, which implied these Pilkada, and potentially the national elections too, would be tainted by divisive identity politics.
But the opposition coalition has largely fallen flat. As in previous Pilkada, national coalitions are not reflected in most regional party constellations. In several strategic provinces where Gerindra–PKS–PAN maintained the alliance, their candidates have run weak and ineffective campaigns. In West Java and Central Java, Prabowo’s nominees are polling poorly and face almost certain defeat. The coalition’s electoral alliance with right-wing Islamists has also atrophied over the past year due to intra-elite conflicts and logistical problems.
One important exception is North Sumatra, where national coalitions have played out locally and there is strong competition between a Prabowo ally and the candidate backed by Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), to which Jokowi belongs.
The opposition coalition’s lacklustre campaign in these Pilkada does not mean that such an alliance cannot be rebuilt or sustained at the national level for the presidential elections. Prabowo remains the only figure capable of challenging Jokowi, though even his chances are slim. Jokowi’s detractors continue to frame their opposition in populist and nativist terms. Any campaign against the incumbent president will probably draw upon support from the Islamists groups as well.
While there has been no dramatic lurch toward sectarianism, religiously motivated smear campaigns are a feature of these Pilkada. In West Java, cosmopolitan or pluralist candidates face regular attacks on their Muslim credentials and are accused of being a kafir or Shia, or committing zina. In West Kalimantan, a province with a history of communal conflict, Christian candidates are also victims of Islamist-inspired slurs. These narratives are often spread through anonymous social media accounts, prayer groups and mosque networks. So far, these appeals are neither prominent nor decisive. But such divisive strategies are being used with increasing regularity in Indonesian elections.
At times, these Pilkada have become a stage for national politicians. People like Agus Yudhoyono of the Democratic Party and Muhaimin Iskandar of the National Awakening Party tried to leverage these elections to boost their name recognition and lobby their way onto vice-presidential tickets. Local candidates have also explicitly tied their campaign to presidential hopefuls in a bid to improve their own electability, despite these practices being prohibited.
But none of these activities have changed the direction of local elections or national polls. For example, President Jokowi’s popularity continues to grow across the country. This includes provinces where Gerindra candidates are leading, like North Sumatra, and where PDI-P candidates are likely to fail, like West Java.
Party leaders also believe that these Pilkada will impact the upcoming legislative elections. 2019 will be the first year that legislative and presidential elections are run simultaneously, and politicians are worried that legislative campaigns will be eclipsed by the presidential race. Jokowi’s bid for re-election will advantage PDI-P in 2019, but the impact of simultaneous elections could be disastrous for other parties. In this time of uncertainty, the Pilkada seem more consequential in the eyes of national politicians. Victory could provide parties with access to government resources, money and business networks — all of which might help their parties’ legislative bids.
History shows, however, that voters’ regional preferences are not good predictors of how they behave in national elections. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 2009 presidential elections, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated PDI-P’s Chairperson, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in her party’s heartland of Central Java. The same goes for legislative elections. For example, in West Java, a PKS candidate won the governorship in 2013, but the following year PDI-P won the most legislative seats.
There is little evidence of a strong connection between regional head elections and national political outcomes. The looming presidential and legislative elections have coloured these Pilkada and given them an air of national political importance. But the results will reflect voters’ local preferences, not their national ones. And while party leaders might see these Pilkada as a means to enhance their chances in 2019, history indicates that those hopes are probably misplaced.
Deasy Simandjuntak, Eve Warburton and Charlotte Setijadi are visiting fellows in the Indonesia Program at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.