Jakarta — Several surveys published last year on the 2019 presidential election put incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the lead against retired Army general Prabowo Subianto, his main opponent. However, the die has yet to be cast as Prabowo continues to forge strong political connections ahead of next year’s regional elections.
As of today, at least six major pollsters – Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC), Poltracking, the Populi Center, Polmark, Indikator Indonesia and Indobaremeter – have put Jokowi in the lead ahead of other potential contenders in 2019, including Prabowo. In the 2014 presidential election, Jokowi and running mate Jusuf Kalla secured 53.15 percent of the vote, compared with 46.85 percent by Prabowo and Hatta Rajasa, their closest contenders.
However, the political landscape has changed since 2014, with the Golkar Party shifting support from Prabowo to the incumbent. The United Development Party (PPP) has also shifted its allegiance from Prabowo to Jokowi since the last election.
2014 Election Result
2018 Political Timetable
In June, Indonesia will hold simultaneous regional elections in 171 districts across 17 provinces and 39 cities. Then, a month later, the General Elections Commission (KPU) will finalize registrations for House of Representatives (DPR) and Provincial Legislative Council (DPRD) candidates.
The most eagerly awaited events on the timetable will happen in August, when political parties register their presidential and vice-presidential nominees with the KPU and in September when the commission will announce the nominees that make the cut for the 2019 presidential election.
Analysts say the increasing prevalence of identity politics, which heavily colored the Jakarta gubernatorial election last year, may point to more political turbulence on the horizon, threatening the future of democracy and pluralism in the world’s fourth most populous country.
Increasing intolerance and politicization of religion in Indonesia are often blamed on so-called hate spin, which many fear will play a key role in the 2019 presidential election. Another political trend analysts have been warning against is rising populism. Indonesia is not alone in this, recent elections in the United States and France suggested the same trend is happening worldwide.
Why Is Jokowi Popular?
Current public opinion in Indonesia is still heavily skewed toward the incumbent, President Jokowi. SMRC survey results for example, suggest an easy win for Jokowi in 2019, with his main political backer, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) expected to sweep the votes in the general election in the same year.
The SMRC survey also revealed an interesting tidbit: 67 percent of respondents were in favor of a Jokowi-Prabowo pairing in the presidential election, with Jokowi as the presidential nominee and Prabowo as his running mate. Public support for Jokowi, according to the poll, continued to increase between May and December last year.
During the same time, support for Prabowo’s support had declined. The SMRC survey suggested that Jokowi’s popularity with voters was due to public satisfaction with his leadership and performance, and also a perceived economic improvement under his presidency.
More than 70 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Jokowi’s performance as president. A similar number said the president had shown great leadership since he took office in 2014. Around 40 percent of respondents said they had seen real economic improvement since last year, and 50 percent said they were expecting even more improvement next year.
Prabowo Playing Catch-Up
The Prabowo camp has said they want to strengthen alliances with their political supporters to catch up with Jokowi, at least in the polls. Arief Poyuono, deputy chairman of Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), said it has forged a solid coalition with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN) for the 2019 presidential election.
“This relationship will continue. We will contest the 2019 presidential election together,” Arief told Suara Pembaruan on Thursday (04/01). With the same coalition having won last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election, the three parties are reportedly now targeting more victories in West Java, North Sumatra, Central Java, East Kalimantan and North Maluku.
PKS chairman Mohamad Sohibul Iman confirmed that the party will remain in the coalition with Gerindra and PAN, at least until the 2019 election. “We won the Jakarta election. Hopefully we can win more regional elections and then, God willing, the 2019 [presidential] election,” he said on Friday. “The 2018 regional elections are a stepping stone for the 2019 election,” he added.
The PDI-P, which won most of the votes in the 2014 legislative election, has not come up with its own clear coalition to try to win this year’s regional elections.
Is the Economy Really Improving?
Berly Martawardaya, program director of think tank, the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), said Jokowi’s ambitious infrastructure development programs, while aiming for long-term sustainability, may backfire and hurt his popularity if he starts to forgo short-term economic programs, which have more short-term benefits that are more immediately tangible to the public.
He noted that last year’s economic growth may end up lower than the government’s official target in the 2017 state budget. “It looks like [economic] growth will not reach this year’s target of 5.1 percent,” Berly said at the 2017 Political Record and 2018 Political Outlook seminar in Jakarta on Dec. 29. According to the Finance Ministry’s unaudited economic performance report, Indonesia’s economic growth may have topped out at 5.05 percent in 2017, below the original target of 5.2 percent.
Berly pointed out that Indonesia’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) posted much higher economic growth this year, including the Philippines (6.7 percent) and Vietnam (6.81 percent). “This is a real challenge for Jokowi next year. If the government cannot reach an economic growth of at least 5.3 percent in 2018, it is going to be difficult for him to be re-elected in 2019 since his initial target was even higher, at 7 percent. [People will see that] there’s been no real progress since 2014,” Berly said.
The government has set an official growth target of 5.4 percent in the 2018 state budget. Berly suggested that the lower-than-expected growth in 2017 was mainly due to the president’s ambitious infrastructure projects.
Jokowi Cannot Rest on His Laurels
Reni Suwarso, director of the Center for Election and Political Party at the University of Indonesia, said the issue of a supposedly “failing economy” under Jokowi can come back to haunt the president, who ran a successful furniture business in Solo, Central Java, before he became a politician.
Reni said Jokowi’s political opponents may continue to “deep fry” the issue until the election next year to undermine him. She suggested that Jokowi forgets the polls and concentrates on showing the public that the economy is improving, if he wants to be re-elected.
“Survey results don’t guarantee anything. [What Jokowi has to do is] make people feel they’re better off economically; that they’ve now got more security in their lives. Then he will win,” Reni told the Jakarta Globe. Reni said the president may also have to deal with covert opposition from dejected members of the old political elite and businessmen from the New Order era who feel left out in the cold under his administration.
There is also a chance that a new name will emerge from the left field in the presidential election, similar to when retired Army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the PDI-P – the biggest party in Indonesia – in the 2004 presidential election.
Or indeed, when Jokowi himself rose through the political ranks seemingly at lightning speed earlier this decade, becoming Jakarta governor in 2012 and then elected president in 2014, defeating former military strongman Prabowo – who comes from one of Indonesia’s elite political families – in a closely fought contest. “In previous presidential elections, we’ve seen unpredictable new names arise and win… We can very well see this happen again next year,” Reni said.
Swing Voters Win Elections
SMRC executive director Djayadi Hanan meanwhile said Indonesia has a significant number of swing voters who may hold the key in determining election outcomes. The results of the 2014 legislative election revealed that more than 38 percent of all eligible voters in Indonesia can be classified as swing voters.
In SMRC surveys, 43.1 percent of respondents failed to indicate support for any political party when prompted with an open-ended question, and almost 20 percent did not indicate support when given a list of political parties. The respondents gave similar answers when quizzed about presidential candidates.
“Indonesian voters tend to move from one [political] party to the next between elections… this means voters keep an open mind and demand political parties work hard to secure their votes,” Djayadi said. He said the only political party that has experienced an increase in public support since the 2014 election has been the PDI-P. The high percentage of swing voters, according to the SMRC, is due to the fact that most Indonesians do not identify with, or remain loyal to, a specific party.