Indonesia’s Elections Become a Two Horse Race

  • photo courtesy of Wikipedia
    May 20, 2014

    Today was the deadline for Indonesia’s political parties to nominate their presidential candidates and coalitions. There have been some interesting turns and unexpected alliances. What is taking shape is a two horse race between two very different candidates. Indonesians will choose between Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and former general Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). 

    If elected, Jokowi would likely continue the close-to-the-people style he has used to run Jakarta, addressing issues by communicating directly with citizens. His alliance with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P suggests he would continue to rule in a more indirect, or Javanese, style. Prabowo on the other hand has run a campaign based on decisiveness and his willingness to lead with authority. Unlike Jokowi, he has unveiled plans for the economy, for addressing key domestic issues, and for putting Indonesia into its proper leadership role in the region. Indonesian voters tend to elect personalities, not party platforms. So the world will soon see which of those styles Indonesians want.

    Q1: How is the presidential election shaping up?

    A1: No single party emerged from April 9 parliamentary elections with enough votes to put forward a presidential ticket alone, forcing the 10 parties that garnered enough votes to enter parliament to form coalitions. The result has been weeks of political horse trading, backroom negotiations, and party infighting.

    The race suddenly became tighter on May 19 when the second biggest party, Golkar, switched its support from PDI-P and officially formed a coalition with Gerindra, reducing presumed frontrunner Jokowi’s camp to four parties – PDI-P, the National Democrats, the National Awakening Party, and the People’s Conscience Party – that received roughly 40 percent of the April votes. Prabowo’s coalition of Gerindra, Golkar, the National Mandate Party, the Prosperous Justice Party, and the United Development Party garnered roughly 47 percent of the parliamentary votes. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party has apparently decided to remain neutral for the time being, perhaps positioning itself as the “king maker” in a close race. 

    After weeks of courting various parties and politicians, the two presidential front runners have declared their running mates. Prabowo on May 14 announced the National Mandate Party’s Hatta Rajasa as his vice president candidate.  It is important to note that Hatta, formerly the coordinating minister for economic affairs, is linked to Yudhoyono by the marriage of their children. Jokowi on May 19 announced popular former vice president Jusuf Kalla, a known deal maker, decisive leader, and former Golkar chairman as his running mate, forming a strong pairing that has polled well.

    Q2: What will the next few months look like?

    A2: The ruling Democrats have been left with no options to form a third coalition, forcing a two ticket race on July 9. This avoids a potential run-off that would have taken place on September 9 if no candidate won a simple majority. The new president will be inaugurated in October and Indonesian tradition suggests that a new cabinet will be put in place at that time.

    A two ticket race would appear to offer an advantage for Jokowi, who is currently polling about 13 percent higher than Prabowo. However, the most sophisticated and well established national party network in Indonesia remains Golkar, which is now supporting Prabowo. The former general has been slowly gaining on Jokowi for months, according to the independent pollster Pusat Data Bersatu.

    This suggests that it could be difficult for either candidate to break away and win decisively on July 9. It also means that support from the Democrats, the only party to remain outside of the two coalitions, could still prove important. The party missed its chance to join a coalition, becoming the first party in Indonesia’s history to win seats in parliament but fail to help nominate a presidential candidate. But it could be invited to join a coalition after the elections, and could garner cabinet positions and other rewards in exchange for support during the campaign. The Democrats still offer 10 percent of the seats in parliament, a capable political machine, and some degree of support from loyal constituents.

    The campaign window partially opens on June 3, allowing the two parties to begin mass-media promotion. They can hold large political rallies from June 14 until the July 6-8 cool-off period, during which no campaigning is allowed. On July 9, some 180 million registered voters will participate in the world’s largest single-day presidential election.

    Q3: What are the implications of a two candidate race?

    A3: This election heralds the maturing of Indonesia’s democracy. The country’s election commission has set higher bars for parties to contest national elections, including more stringent financial disclosure and registration requirements. This, among other rising benchmarks, decreased the number of eligible parties in the legislative elections from 48 in 1999 to only 12 in 2014. With fewer parties, the current election maneuvering suggests that Indonesia may be moving into a two-coalition standard of political competition not unlike other long-standing parliamentary systems around the world. 

    The fact that the race is down to two candidates also allows Indonesia’s partners to better anticipate scenarios for ongoing relations with the country. While the two candidates are very different personally, and their governing styles will likely be quite different, neither will be able to deviate too far from what Indonesian voters want if they hope to be reelected. That suggests a relatively consistent economic policy dominated by a strong assertion of economic nationalism.

    Foreign policy is also likely to remain consistent, with Indonesia holding to its natural role as the anchor of ASEAN while explicitly pursuing neutrality in its relations globally. The approach and personalities will be quite different. A Prabowo presidency will likely feature a new level of decisiveness, vision, and more centralized management style. Jokowi is less predictable because he has not articulated a clear policy platform, but one could expect that his economic and foreign policy team would be dominated by technocrats aligned with PDI-P, and even some ministers returning from Megawati’s 2001-2004 administration.

    For the United States, it is most important to focus on the mandate of the Indonesian people. Washington must embrace and work with whichever candidate is elected.

    Ernest Bower is the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Brian Kraft is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.

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