For Indonesia, the presidential and parliamentary elections taking place in April will be a key event in 2019. And the big question, of course, is who will win at the polls and occupy the Istana in Jakarta for the next five years.
While the coming presidential election may seem like a “rematch” between Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, as both also contested in the last poll in 2014, their respective positions have altered significantly since then.
Five years back, Mr Widodo was a political upstart that shot onto the national scene through the country’s direct election system. He challenged elite politics by using unconventional methods like his signature impromptu “blusukan” visits to local markets to understand the concerns of the common man.
Mr Subianto, on the other hand, was very much part of the establishment, with his military background and support from the majority of parliamentarians at that time. Eventually, Mr Widodo’s populist touch won him 53.15 per cent of the valid votes, defeating his rival by a 6.3 per cent margin.
Now Mr Widodo is entrenched as the establishment, with the majority of parliamentarians and political parties in his coalition, while Mr Subianto operates as the challenger looking for chinks in the president’s political armour.
The Indonesian Survey Institute’s latest polls show that President Jokowi is leading the electability game at 53 per cent, while Mr Subianto is trailing at 31 per cent.
While opinion polls may capture the electoral mood of the moment, political mood swings are common and Mr Subianto may just close the gap, as he did the last time. He has been attacking the President on two fronts.
The first is Mr Widodo’s religious piety, which was also the subject of a smear campaign in the last election. The President had anticipated this, and the appointment of conservative Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential candidate had the effect of shielding him from accusations of being not religious enough.
The second major issue, which is likely to occupy upcoming debates on the campaign trail, is Mr Widodo’s record at promoting economic growth and reducing poverty and social inequality. As these are not matters that can be resolved overnight, the focus of both camps will be on perception management.
Already, the Jokowi Administration has increased the social assistance budget by 33 per cent and energy subsidy by 65 per cent, which will allow the lower rungs of society to maintain their spending, at least in the short run. On the other hand, Mr Subianto has painted the picture that the plight of Indonesia’s poor is at a crisis level, which requires firm and immediate action from him and his team.
Yet aside from the political positioning of both camps, their policy platforms are actually not too different. Across various domains from domestic economy to human development, equality, social welfare and environmental protection, the broad strokes are more similar than different in their respective manifestos. In other words, where policy is concerned, there may not be much difference whoever is elected president.
Such a sentiment is common on the ground, and this perception may lead to indifference among the Indonesian electorate, such that more may choose to abstain or cast spoiled votes. The voter turnout in 2014 had already dipped to below 70 per cent, as compared to a high of more than 82 per cent in 2009. It will be even more challenging to draw millennial voters, who constitute an estimated 40 per cent of eligible voters, out of political indifference.
A 2017 survey by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (Jakarta) found that only 2.3 per cent of millennials are interested in discussing social and political issues.
Political publicity stunts and image management may appeal to this vote bank much more than whatever policies have been tabled. This is where Mr Subianto, paired with the 49-year-old successful businessman Sandiaga Uno, may have an edge over Mr Widodo, who has a septuagenarian as running mate.
But whoever wins the ticket to the Istana, Indonesia will have to face the same set of domestic and international economic challenges. To be sure, macro economic indicators are at healthy levels. In 2018, GDP growth stands at around 5 per cent, inflation rate is relatively low at 3.1 per cent, the international reserve stands at around US$ 117 billion (enough for six-months’ imports), and the budget deficit and debt to GDP ratio remain prudent.
However, there are significant potential vulnerabilities to take note of. Most worrying is the expanding current account deficit, which makes Indonesia’s financial sector and its currency vulnerable to sudden capital outflow. Moreover, the government’s policy to maintain energy subsidies will put additional pressure on the country’s fiscal space and make Indonesia always vulnerable to increases in world oil prices. The continuing weak tax effort also limits the government’s fiscal space, making it difficult to sustain spending on critical infrastructure, education, health and other social programmes.
At the same time, the Indonesian economy will have to contend with rising uncertainties in the geopolitical and global economic climate, driven by the United States-China trade tension and rising trade protectionism. In particular, China’s economic slowdown and the US’ tightening monetary policy will have ramifications for the Indonesian economy.
Another major concern is security. The Surabaya bombings last year targeted churches and the police, demonstrating that terrorism remains a major threat that the authorities need to stay vigilant against. Beyond terrorism, other security threats include transnational organised crimes and cyber-crimes.
Indonesia’s president for the next five years will have to be adept not only at handling domestic bread and butter issues and national security, but also in navigating the rough waters of international trade and relations.
Hui Yew-Foong is Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute where Siwage Dharma Negara is a Senior Fellow.