Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Another fork in the road for democracy?

Published: Mar 08, 2019

Dave McRae & Dirk Tomsa

Five years ago, many saw the electoral contest between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto as a battle between good and evil. In April 2019, the two men face-off again for the presidency. This time it seems more like a case of the lesser of two evils.

In 2014, Jokowi had campaigned on a promise to end the horse-trading that had slowed democratic reform to a virtual halt, pitching himself as a president who would represent the voice of the people. His candidacy spurred a new sense of hope, embodied by an enthusiastic volunteer movement of supporters that cut through Indonesians’ apathy towards politicians.

By contrast, Prabowo openly toyed with authoritarian ideas. Presenting himself as the archetypal strongman candidate, the former general pledged to restore Indonesia’s status as an Asian tiger and threatened to dismantle key pillars of Indonesian democracy including direct presidential elections.

Despite the stark differences between them, Jokowi won only narrowly, by a margin of 53 to 47 per cent.

Fast forward five years, and the contrast between the two candidates is far less pronounced. Jokowi has made little use of his mandate to revitalise democratic reform, failing to halt growing religious polarisation and even displaying some worrying illiberal tendencies himself. Nevertheless, Jokowi entered the 2019 election campaign as the clear frontrunner. By late January, his lead in the polls was comfortable, at 55 to 35.

Jokowi will be well aware that the race is not over, as he nearly squandered a similar lead in 2014. But so far at least, the election campaign has been somewhat subdued, not yet displaying the widespread sharp polarisation many observers had feared.

Jokowi’s track record

Three stark differences separated the Jokowi and Prabowo campaigns in 2014. First, Jokowi promised a new, forward-looking way of doing politics, whereas Prabowo’s frequent references to former presidents Sukarno and Suharto indicated that he would rather return Indonesia to its authoritarian past. Second, Jokowi pledged more open and accountable government, whilst Prabowo found himself defending two coalition parties embroiled in corruption scandals. Third, Jokowi received support primarily from nationalist and moderate religious parties, making his coalition appear decidedly pluralist. On the other hand, Prabowo played the Islamic card by embracing conservative religious parties and hard-line Islamist groups. Significantly, each of these distinctions has eroded over the course of Jokowi’s first term.

Soon after Jokowi’s inauguration, it became apparent that he lacked both the political backing and the personal commitment to drive democratic reform forward. Lukewarm support from his party, PDI-P, and an initial minority coalition in parliament led Jokowi to repeatedly make politically expedient appointments.

Jokowi’s nomination of Budi Gunawan as national police chief in 2015 – to placate his party chairperson – was the most egregious example. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) had blacklisted Gunawan as a cabinet member just three months earlier. In the end, Jokowi was forced to abandon the appointment in the face of a political firestorm.

Instead, he welcomed other controversial figures including the once disgraced Suharto-era general Wiranto back into the fold. The former commander-in-chief of the armed forces was appointed Coordinating Minister for Political, Security and Legal Affairs, even though he was once dismissed from exactly that ministerial role because of his indictment in East Timor for war crimes.

Such appointments spur Prabowo supporters to argue their candidate’s links to the authoritarian New Order period are now irrelevant. ‘It’s a redundant comparison … There are prominent New Order figures who are now decision makers in both campaigns,’ Sekar Krisnauli, a media relations officer on the Prabowo campaign, told the authors.

The fight against corruption, too, has weakened under Jokowi, as the president has politicised and failed to protect the KPK. Jokowi initially drew praise for asking the KPK to vet the background of cabinet appointments, but this role dragged the commission into the domain of politics rather than law enforcement, politicising and weakening it. PhD candidate at the Australian National University Tom Power notes the KPK has not prosecuted any prominent PDI-P figures under its current commissioners, and argues the office of the Attorney General has become more politicised still under HM Prasetyo, a senior politician from one of Jokowi‘s coalition parties. According to Power, threats of prosecution have reportedly been used to coerce opposition figures including some governors and mayors to support Jokowi.

Nor has Jokowi protected the KPK from retribution by its opponents. More than 18 months after prominent KPK investigator Novel Baswedan lost his sight in one eye after an acid attack near his home, no one has been charged in the case.

The fight against corruption has in fact weakened under Jokowi.   Source/ Joko Widodo Instagram

But it has been on the question of Islamism and pluralism that the distinction between the two presidential candidates has eroded the furthest. When Islamists seized on injudicious remarks by Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (then better known as Ahok) in late 2016 to accuse him of blasphemy, Jokowi cut his former political ally loose. The size of the mobilisation against Ahok appeared to spook Jokowi, as he feared that his opponents may attempt a similarly massive attack against his own Islamic credentials in 2019. Jokowi himself attended a massive anti-Ahok rally and prayer meeting in December 2016, lending presidential legitimacy to the event. He also subsequently embraced the influential head of the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI), Ma’ruf Amin, and ultimately made him his running mate.

Jokowi’s pragmatism has diminished his standing with progressive civil society actors and earned him the disapproval of foreign scholars. But it has not discernibly dented his standing in opinion polls. Public perceptions of his leadership ability, performance as president and electability had initially plummeted during Jokowi’s first nine months in office, but have each steadily risen since then. By late 2018, Jokowi was performing similarly or better on each of these measures, compared to the start of his term.

Jokowi appears to have avoided an electoral backlash over his track record for two distinct reasons. First, many of his supporters who disagree with his policies see them either as forced upon him, or still a better outcome than what could be expected under a Prabowo presidency.

Illustrating this line of argument, Ririn Sefsani, a Jokowi volunteer in 2014 argues that ‘Jokowi’s powers are limited – no political party of his own, no links to old elites and the military – but the expectations are high. Therefore he has to make compromises.’ For her, these kinds of compromises are inevitable and still better than a Prabowo presidency. ‘A win for Prabowo’, she says, ‘would be the death of democracy, the death of political rights, and the death of the dreams of Indonesian children from ordinary families to become president one day.’

A second set of voters, though, seem to have stuck with Jokowi because they actually agree with his positions. While activists may have hoped that Jokowi would revitalise the narrative of reformasi, there is in fact little evidence in public opinion polling that a majority of Indonesians would want Jokowi to take a firmer stance on issues such as human rights and pluralism. The main concerns for most Indonesians are economic in nature and Jokowi has tailored his policy priorities accordingly during his first term.

In fact, since coming to power, Jokowi has dedicated most of his attention to improving Indonesia’s notoriously poor infrastructure. Despite some serious setbacks – for example delays in the construction of the Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway – Jokowi can point to some major achievements including several new ports, airports and road networks. In addition, key economic indicators have performed reasonably well, even though overall economic growth did not reach the levels Jokowi had promised when assuming office. Most importantly, inflation has remained low for the last three years (around 3 per cent), which is particularly good news for Jokowi because Indonesia’s recent electoral history shows that incumbents tend to enjoy high rates of approval whenever inflation is low.

Jokowi: no longer the outsider

Jokowi’s decent economic track record, coupled with achievements in health and education policy, have made it difficult for Prabowo to find the right angle to attack the incumbent. Prabowo in fact often disappeared from public view for extended periods of time during the last five years. As leader of Gerindra, he preferred to leave day-to-day politics to his party, stepping to the fore only during the highly charged 2017 Jakarta governor election. Nevertheless, Prabowo consistently topped surveys as the strongest contender to challenge Jokowi in the 2019 election, ultimately producing a repeat of 2014’s two horse race. But it remains to be seen whether the man who came within a whisker of winning in 2014 will be as tough an opponent this time around.

Certainly, Prabowo’s start to the campaign has been more subdued than five years ago. The aggressive populism and rhetoric that won him so much support in 2014 is far from gone, but at least on selected occasion, Prabowo seems keen to appear more statesman-like and composed this time around. At the first presidential debate, he donned a suit and tie rather than the Sukarno-style safari suit of 2014. Epitomising such attempts to temper Prabowo’s image, his cat also opened an Instagram account in late 2018, posting a mix of cute feline photographs and positive messages about Prabowo.

Bobbythek4t joins Prabowo's 2019 campaign on Instagram

The Prabowo camp has also attempted a re-focus in its early official campaign messaging. Jobs and cost of living have featured as much as xenophobia and predictions of Indonesia’s imminent disintegration. Prabowo’s running mate, the youthful US-educated billionaire Sandiaga Uno, seems much more at ease with this campaign style than Prabowo. So far, Prabowo has left much of the campaigning to him.

Prabowo’s comparatively low-key start has spurred speculation as to whether he is willing or able to lift his game in the remainder of the campaign. Three months before polling day, his supporters remained upbeat that there is enough time to close the gap in the polls. In Sekar Krisnauli’s view, more media appearances, more constituent visits, and simpler messaging are all needed for Prabowo to pull in front.

Even if he does all of this, however, Prabowo’s problem may still be that he no longer has the war chest that underpinned his 2014 campaign juggernaut. Brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo’s resources are much diminished this time, Prabowo’s coalition of parties is smaller, and assistance from the parties that do officially support him is anything but solid. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, has so far refused to bang the drum for Prabowo, choosing instead to campaign for his own Democratic Party, which is fighting for survival in the simultaneously held legislative election. Some prominent provincial governors affiliated with parties from the Prabowo camp are even openly supporting Jokowi.

Moreover, the Prabowo campaign has suffered early setbacks. Hoaxes like the alleged assault on prominent Prabowo supporter Ratna Sarumpaet (who was recovering from liposuction rather than a beating) opened the campaign to widespread ridicule. Some of the hardline Islamists who teamed up with Prabowo in 2017 to topple Ahok have abandoned him after Prabowo refused to nominate one of their own as his vice-presidential candidate. Overall, it seems that Prabowo has a mountain to climb before election day on 17 April.

Exacerbating Prabowo’s challenge, Jokowi is no longer the inexperienced local politician who entered the 2014 race with limited support from oligarchs and party machines. Now that he is the incumbent, Jokowi not only has enormous political and material resources for patronage and vote buying, but he has also assembled a formidable coalition of nine parties. In addition, he can be all but assured that most traditionalist Muslims will vote for him after he appointed conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential candidate.

Unsurprisingly then, Jokowi – like Prabowo – has also changed his campaign style. Gone are for example the trademark impromptu constituency visits (blusukan) he utilised so effectively in 2014. Instead, the president now focuses more on trumpeting his achievements in developing Indonesia’s infrastructure and improving access to healthcare and education. And if public opinion surveys are right, then the public seems to approve of this approach. At this point, the election appears Jokowi’s to lose, rather than Prabowo’s to win.

A divisive poll? 

But of course, that was the case in 2014 as well. Back then, Prabowo did eventually manage to catch up with Jokowi, largely because he turned the campaign into the most divisive in Indonesia’s recent history, with supporters of each candidate displaying open disdain for each other. The head-to-head nature of the contest, the ubiquity of social media, Prabowo’s aggressive populism and the introduction of US-style smear campaigning all contributed to the polarisation. Divisive campaigning has only intensified further in the intervening years, with the rise of the political hoax and the polarising Jakarta election. Accordingly, many observers have feared that 2019 could become the most polarising election yet.

Certainly, there is some evidence to support fears the poll will sharpen divisions. Social media sledging has continued, with pejorative labels deeming Jokowi supporters ‘tadpoles’ (cebong) and Prabowo’s followers ‘bats’ (kampret). More and more Indonesians are using the internet as a daily source of political news – tripling to 22 per cent since 2014, according to Indikator polling – facilitating the spread of personal attacks and hoaxes. The religious polarisation dating back to the anti-Ahok campaign is also yet to fade entirely. And neither camp has shied away from personal attacks on their opponents to add heat to the campaign.

At the same time, however, the Jokowi administration has also worked hard to try to prevent another divisive election. The appointment of Ma’ruf Amin, even if he was not actually Jokowi’s first choice, was the most obvious example of seeking to pre-empt a sectarian campaign. Moreover, the government has taken a number of steps to rein in online hate speech – many would say particularly when it is directed against the president or the government. A religiously charged election does not suit Jokowi, as it would be a more unpredictable landscape for a popular incumbent than a contest based on his track record. The government has launched a string of prosecutions against those circulating inflammatory material online, under Indonesia’s oft-criticised Electronic Transaction and Information Law. The latest to land behind bars has been Ahmad Dhani, a musician-turned-Gerindra candidate who in 2014 posted a music video in support of Prabowo featuring himself wearing a Nazi-style uniform. Other government critics, even if unaffiliated with Prabowo, have also been subjected to intimidation. In response, the Prabowo camp has since pledged to revise the law to protect ordinary citizens from becoming unwittingly ensnared.

Countering the polarisation narrative is also the seemingly growing disengagement of certain segments of the public from the election. Dissatisfied with a lack of choices, many voters have turned to satire and pledged support for satirical candidates Nurhadi and Aldo, who combine their names in a style typical of Indonesian politicians to produce the campaign slogan ‘Dildo for Indonesia’. The fictional pair quickly amassed almost 500,000 Instagram followers, and more than 100,000 on Twitter. The rise of Dildo has fanned speculation that record numbers of voters may choose to abstain in this year’s election.

A fork in the road?

With six weeks to go to the election, undecided voters still have plenty of time to make up their mind. Their choice on 17 April may no longer be as stark as it seemed in 2014, but the poll may well be another important fork in the road for Indonesian democracy. Not least among the reasons, a crop of young regional leaders keenly await their chance to have a crack at the presidency in 2024. If Jokowi wins a second term, there is little to suggest that these up-and-coming politicians will not have that opportunity. It may yet be a different story if Prabowo wins this time.

Dave McRae (david.mcrae@unimelb.edu.au) is a senior lecturer in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, and a co-host of the Talking Indonesia podcast.

Dirk Tomsa (d.tomsa@latrobe.edu.au) is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a co-host of the Talking Indonesia podcast.

Inside Indonesia 135: Jan-Mar 2019

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