President Joko Widodo (second right) and his vice-presidential running mate, Ma'ruf Amin (right), and their rivals, presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (second left) and running mate Sandiaga Uno, pose with the electoral numbers that will represent them in next year’s presidential election, during a draw at the General Election Commission office in Jakarta in September. Bagus Indahono/EPA

Incumbent Jokowi versus Prabowo – who will win Indonesia’s presidential election?

Four months out from Indonesia’s presidential election, recent surveys by various respected pollsters indicate that incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will win.

Survey results from pollsters Indikator Politik, Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC), Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) and Kompas showed more than 50% of respondents would vote for Jokowi. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was attracting only 30% of votes.

The question is whether that number will hold true in 2019? What are the risks for Jokowi, and can Prabowo turn the tables and win?

Assessing Jokowi’s path to victory

Jokowi has a bigger chance to win the election. He has secured support from more political parties than Prabowo has. A coalition of nine parties supports Jokowi’s candidacy. Prabowo has five parties backing him.

Jokowi’s victory, however, is not at all assured.

Jokowi may have won the hearts of potential voters by building roads, airports and ports. But his opponents can still bring him down with other issues. Among these are religious issues, which foiled the attempt of Chinese Christian candidate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama to win the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Learning from Ahok’s defeat, Jokowi has shifted his strategy. Jokowi, who ran his 2014 election campaign on pluralism and a progressive human rights platform, has chosen the conservative chairman of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, Ma'ruf Amin, as his running mate. He has also recruited members of the opposition, such as Muslim politician Ali Mochtar Ngabalin.

When his opponents tried to politicise religious issues with the recent burning of a flag with Arabic writings on it, they failed to gain attention due to the involvement of Nadlatul Ulama, the nation’s biggest Islamic organisation. NU has supported Jokowi’s candidacy as both share an interest in preventing intolerant Muslim groups from spreading.

As long as Jokowi manages to avoid any personal involvement in any religious-tinged controversy, he could avoid Ahok’s fate – and so far he has managed to do so.

The economy, however, is the wild card. Jokowi should win as long as the economy is humming along nicely. But it is influenced by variables beyond his control, including the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, an economic crisis in Turkey, problems in the European Union with Brexit and a budget crisis in Italy.

In early September, the exchange rate of the rupiah against the US dollar surpassed a psychological barrier of Rp15,000 per dollar. By November, the rupiah had strengthened significantly as foreign investments increased, but the currency can still weaken due to global economic and political uncertainties. And this might hurt Jokowi’s re-election prospects.

While the weakening of the rupiah didn’t increase the price of staple goods, it still weakened people’s purchasing power. This may affect Jokowi’s chances of winning as the the majority of voters are mostly concerned with bread-and-butter issues.

Measuring Prabowo’s chances

Prabowo’s path to victory is simple: he has to bring attention to Indonesia’s economic weaknesses. But a number of political blunders may have stalled him.

Prabowo’s criticism of Jokowi’s economic policies have been voiced aggressively by Prabowo’s running mate, businessman-turned-politician Sandiaga Uno.

Sandiaga’s remarks included questioning why the size of sliced tempeh (fermented soybean cakes that are very popular in Indonesia) in markets had slimmed to the size of an ATM card. His attacks on Jokowi’s economic policies also include claims that he could only buy chilli and shallots in the market with a Rp100,000 (US$6.91) bill.

Sandiaga’s strategy is to court controversies to attract media and social media attention to his campaign.

First, Sandiaga’s strategy has endeared him to the millennials and also presents him as an authentic politician.

Second, and most importantly, Sandiaga has managed to force the attention of the public and Jokowi’s administration to turn to economic problems caused by the weakening of rupiah. This could, in effect, erode the electability of Jokowi.

Despite Sandiaga’s achievement, Prabowo and his team have made many political blunders that could be disastrous for their prospects.

One of the biggest blunders was a claim that Sandiaga was a student of Islamic boarding schools to justify Prabowo’s decision in choosing him. Promoting religious issues, Prabowo’s camp said it only supported religious scholars as his vice-presidential candidate.

The fact is Sandiaga, a Muslim, was educated in private Christian institutions, PSKD and Pangudi Luhur, and later in Wichita State University and George Washington University in the US.

As if that was not enough, Prosperous Justice Party politician Hidayat Nur Wahid, who supports Prabowo, upped the ante by declaring Sandiaga a religious scholar.

This achieved nothing more than to make a mockery of Sandiaga’s candidacy and show that money could buy everything – including one’s self-worth and religious title.

Another big blunder was a hoax spread by an important member of Prabowo’s election team, Ratna Sarumpaet. Ratna told media a group of unidentified men had assaulted her in Bandung, West Java. Her assault was greeted with uproar. Opposition members immediately rallied behind her and insinuated that Jokowi’s camp was behind this.

It turned out that Ratna’s story was a hoax. Her “injuries” were the result of plastic surgery. Prabowo apologised for her acts. Unfortunately for the opposition, Ratna’s case has harmed its credibility.

Adding to the list are Prabowo’s three most recent blunders. First was when Prabowo mocked people from Boyolali, Central Java. Sandiaga then appeared to disrespect the graves of Islamic major figures by stepping over them. The last was when Prabowo issued a statement belittling online motorcycle-taxi drivers.

These blunders distract the opposition from its main mission as they force Prabowo’s camp to keep apologising and play defensive.

If Prabowo keeps repeating his political blunders, there is no way for him to squeak to victory even should he finally get an opportunity such as worsening economic conditions.

The winner is …

At this point, the safest horse to bet on is Jokowi. Barring any global economic upheaval, as long as he plays safe – by avoiding getting dragged into personal or religious controversies – he can simply waltz to victory. He just needs to make sure the people he thinks he can rely on voting for him will actually vote for him.

This means Jokowi needs to assuage the concerns of his long-time supporters, who disapproved of his decision to abandon his pluralistic approach and choose Ma'ruf as his vice-presidential candidate. These supporters will watch very closely what both Jokowi and Ma'ruf Amin do.

Prabowo’s road to victory is very narrow, but it is still possible. He needs to reach out more towards ethnic and religious minorities, while tamping down the divisive rhetoric from his supporters. But, more importantly, he needs to run a more disciplined campaign that avoids more blunders.


Asrudin Azwar, founder of The Asrudian Centre, co-authored this article.