Indonesian Presidential Politics Begins to Heat Up 18 Months before Elections

By Geoffrey Hartman —

General Gatot Nurmantyo of Indonesia (seated, left) is one of several possible candidates who could run against President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in April 2019. Source: Didit Putra’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Indonesia’s April 2019 general elections are still 18 months away, but the potential challengers to incumbent president Joko Widodo — popularly known as “Jokowi” — are beginning to emerge and hone their campaign narratives. Candidates for the 2019 presidential election will not be officially announced until next September, but the jockeying between likely contenders is already impacting Indonesia’s domestic stability and foreign policy.

Jakarta’s new governor, Anies Baswedan, was the latest to tip his hand in an October 16 inaugural speech that was seen as an attempt to boost the national profile of a politician rumored to hold presidential ambitions. The speech was criticized by some as divisive for its references to colonial-era oppression and the need for native Indonesians to be “masters in our own country,” which was interpreted as targeting ethnic Chinese-Indonesians. His comments followed a racially and religiously charged April election that saw Baswedan defeat Chinese-Christian former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as “Ahok”).

Indonesian armed forces commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo has also engaged in divisive posturing that seems intended to boost his national profile for a possible presidential run. Gatot has raised the specter of a resurgence by the long-defunct Indonesian Communist Party, and in September he ordered military screenings of a Suharto-era propaganda film about the failed 1965 coup that led to mass killings of suspected communists in Indonesia. Gatot also threatened the Indonesian police and state intelligence agency in a September 22 speech, and on October 23 attempted to turn a delayed flight to the United States into an international incident in a fashion reminiscent of his January suspension of military ties with Australia over offensive language teaching materials.

Both Baswedan and Gatot will be looking for ways to weaken Jokowi, but they are also competing against each other. Jokowi won an important victory in July when the Indonesian legislature maintained a high eligibility threshold for presidential candidates in the next election. Candidates must have the backing of a party or coalition that controls 20 percent of the seats in the legislature or that won 25 percent of the vote in the last legislative elections, a threshold that would allow for only two presidential candidates if current political coalitions hold.

Prabowo Subianto, who was defeated by Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election and now leads the opposition coalition, remains the odds-on favorite to face Jokowi in a rematch. But Prabowo may have created a threat to his own presidential hopes by backing Baswedan in his campaign to become Jakarta governor. It would not be the first time that one of Prabowo’s protégés challenged him. Jokowi himself had Prabowo’s backing in his successful campaign for Jakarta governor in 2012 before defeating Prabowo for the presidency two years later.

The conventional wisdom emerging from Baswedan’s defeat of Ahok is that rising intolerance in Indonesia makes courting conservative Islamic voters a path to victory. Baswedan, an Islamic intellectual before entering politics, is better suited to enact such a strategy than Prabowo, who, despite a history of opportunistically using hardline Islamist groups for political purposes, lacks Islamic credentials and has Christian family members. Jokowi—a Javanese Muslim—is unlikely to be susceptible to attacks on his race and religion in the way that the Chinese-Christian Ahok was, however, and in fact successfully headed off politically motivated rumors that he was secretly Chinese or Christian in the 2014 campaign.

The lack of success in attacking Jokowi on Islam may explain the puzzling return of anti-communist rhetoric in Indonesian politics, which Gatot apparently believes will allow him to succeed in politics where his predecessor, Gen. Moeldoko, failed in 2014. Gatot’s quixotic campaign seems less likely to gain traction than that of Baswedan, however, as there is little to suggest that appealing to anti-communist fears is an effective political tactic in today’s Indonesia. Indonesia’s communists were destroyed over 50 years ago, and a September 29 survey showed that nearly 87 percent of Indonesian respondents do not believe there is a revival of the Indonesian Communist Party.

While Baswedan courts Islamic conservatives and Gatot appeals to a declining demographic of New Order reactionaries, Prabowo seems likely to return to his appeal as a populist and nationalist strongman who can fix a corrupt system. This narrative wasn’t quite enough to defeat the fresh-faced avatar of change that Jokowi represented in 2014, but the realities of governing and the compromises Jokowi has made to succeed in Indonesia’s oligarchic political scene will make it difficult for him to run as an anti-establishment candidate again. Jokowi seems to recognize this, and has been positioning himself as a staunch nationalist and defender of the state ideology of Pancasila.

Jokowi remains popular — a September poll put his approval rating at 68 percent — but desire for change will build if he cannot deliver on his reform promises, especially improving Indonesia’s economy. But continued economic progress may not be easy to achieve, and Indonesia’s steady 5 percent annual gross domestic product growth under Jokowi has lagged behind that of other emerging economies in Southeast Asia. Jokowi’s administration has already undertaken relatively simple economic reforms like ending government fuel subsidies and executing a tax amnesty, and it will be difficult to advance more complex reforms in the face of resistance from Indonesia’s powerful vested interests, particularly in the legislature. For all the discussion of growing Islamic conservatism, the real threat to Jokowi’s political future is disillusionment with his ability to successfully implement his reform agenda and increase the prosperity of the average Indonesian, which could lead voters to turn to Prabowo or another strongman to force through the change they desire.

Policymakers in Washington should be aware that political dynamics in Indonesia over the next 18 months will make relations with Southeast Asia’s largest country even more thorny than usual, and should be wary of playing into attempts to use the United States as a punching bag to boost the nationalist credentials of presidential hopefuls. Thankfully, Indonesia’s democracy remains the most robust in the region, which should allow the United States to remain safely above the fray and avoid the accusations of foreign interference that come when it is necessary to monitor the basic freedom and fairness of elections.

Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.This post originally appeared in the October 26, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.

Geoffrey Hartman

Geoffrey Hartman

Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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