Indonesia’s elections: why do they matter and what’s at stake?

A district employee carries a ballot box a day before distributing to pollings center in Bogor, West Java. Indonesia will hold its general elections on 17 April, during which the president, vice president, and legislative members will be elected. Adi Weda/AAP

Indonesia’s elections: why do they matter and what’s at stake?

The world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia, is holding its fifth national election since the fall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998.

India may organise the biggest and most expensive elections in the world, but they aren’t as complex as in Indonesia.

Located between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population and is the world’s biggest Muslim populated country. And its future is at stake with these elections.

The elections’ results will determine the stability of Indonesia as a democratic country, from both economic and security standpoints.

Here is what you need to know about Indonesia’s elections and what’s at stake.

Five polls at once

For the first time, Indonesia will hold presidential and legislative elections at the same time. The government claims the simultaneous system will cut costs.

So, once entering a voting booth, a voter must deal with five voting ballots at once, making it the most complex election in the world.

The number

There are nearly 192.8 million registered voters, with almost 50% of them under 40.

On Wednesday morning, eligible voters will go to 810,329 voting booths across the country to vote for a president and vice president and almost 20,500 legislative members in the national, provincial and district level, as well as 132 senators for the Regional Representative Council. At least 300,000 candidates are running for the legislative seats.

For the presidential seat, a voter must choose between incumbent Jokowi “Jokowi” Widodo and his rival Prabowo Subianto.

What’s at stake?

There are concerns about this election. Pundits are questioning the quality of Indonesian democracy, amidst growing repression, rising conservatism, coupled with growing Islamism and anti-feminist trends.

There are also concerns about the military’s growing influence. One may be forgiven for thinking Indonesia might be on the brink of civil war.

Not surprisingly, many believe a lot is at stake in these elections. It is, in essence, a battle between flawed technocratic reformers who nevertheless represent a moderate, inclusive Indonesia, versus nationalist populists who court hard-line Islamist groups with illiberal agenda.

Rematch between Jokowi and Prabowo

The 2019 presidential election is a rematch between Jokowi, a layman and furniture seller who became a politician, and Prabowo, a former general and ex-son-in-law of former dictator Soeharto. In the 2014 presidential election, Jokowi won the election by a small margin.

To secure a second term, Jokowi touts his economic accomplishments under his administration. One of them is promoting rapid infrastructure development, neglected by his predecessors.

Jokowi’s other strategy is allying himself with Nadlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s biggest Muslim organisation by choosing Ma'ruf Amin, a senior figure in the NU, as his running mate. By taking this strategy, Jokowi is ditching his previous approach of promoting pluralism that worked for him in 2014.

By choosing Ma'ruf, Jokowi hopes to avoid being attacked by his rival using religious issues in a similar way to his former partner, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Ahok was Jokowi’s former deputy when the latter became Jakarta governor.

A Chinese and Christian, Ahok was a victim of a black campaign organised by conservatives to stop him from winning the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. Not only did Ahok fail to win the election, but he was also later found guilty of blasphemy charges. He was recently released from prison.

On the other side is Prabowo. Prabowo is running with Sandiaga Uno, one of the richest people in Indonesia.

Prabowo’s supporters are those who long for the stability under the authoritarian rule of Soeharto. Compared to Jokowi, Prabowo is seen as a stronger leader due to his experience in the military.

Prabowo’s supporters also include the conservatives who join him simply because they despise Jokowi.

Apart from attacking Jokowi’s economic policies, other strategies from Prabowo’s supporters are creating an image that Jokowi is hostile to Muslims’ interests.

In return, Jokowi’s supporters end up attacking Prabowo by saying he is not a good Muslim. They question Prabowo’s piety by asking where he is doing his Friday prayer, which is an obligation for Muslim men. They also insinuate that Prabowo is supporting the establishment of an Islamic state, leading to his vigorous denial during the presidential debates.

Predicting the result, whoever wins

Jokowi’s victory would vindicate his economic policies and signal to the oppositions – or, rather, the candidates for the 2024 presidential election –that taking a hard-line position will not appeal to the majority of voters.

Of course, this does not mean that candidates can ignore the role of Islam in politics, as Ahok painfully experienced in his failed 2017 Jakarta election. Rather, it is much better to take a more moderate stance to gain support.

If Prabowo wins, this will indicate that identity politics remains potent and taking hard-line religious position works. Granted, this does not necessarily mean Prabowo approves such tactics. Still, the fact that those who often use religious-based attacks are mostly in his camp means that his victory would, unfortunately, be seen as a victory of identity populism politics, which will be used again in the next election.