No thanks to PDI-P: Jokowi wins despite poor campaign

Joko Widodo’s supporters organised a concert that managed to mobilise youth voters to support him. Hendrik Mintarno/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Despite an ineffectual campaign by Indonesia’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jakarta governor Joko Widodo won Indonesia’s presidential election, according to quick count results.

Data from reputable survey centres such as SMRC (Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting) showed a 3-5% margin of victory for Jokowi, Widodo’s popular nickname.

This apparently comfortable margin, however, does not reflect how tight the race was. Former military general Prabowo Subianto almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a race that Jokowi was supposed to win easily. Six months ago, surveys showed he had four times more popular support than Prabowo.

With intense campaigning, Prabowo managed to close the gap in opinion polls just before the election. Prabowo still has yet to concede defeat, relying on four (of 11) quick count results that show him leading. The Indonesian Election Commission will announce the result on July 22.

Slow start for Jokowi

Before April’s legislative election, Jokowi had a commanding lead in opinion polls of around 30%. But he started his campaign with a severe disadvantage. The PDI-P selected him as the party’s candidate only very late in the legislative campaign period.

The PDI-P did not prominently promote Jokowi in most of its campaign material. The party’s ads show either chairwoman and former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri or her daughter Puan Maharani. As a result Jokowi’s impact in the legislative election was minimal.

When votes for the legislative election were finally tallied, PDI-P’s share of votes was far below the high (and often unrealistic) expectations. Many commentators and even people in his own party started to blame Jokowi. They questioned whether the “Jokowi Effect” actually exists.

Further compounding the problems, Jokowi had to wait until he received Megawati’s approval in mid-March before he could become the PDI-P’s presidential candidate. Much to his disadvantage, he could not respond to smear campaigns that began to swirl during the legislative election campaign. Worse, his waiting for Megawati’s approval provided his opponents with ammunition to cast doubt about his ability as a leader.

Prabowo went on the offensive

Prabowo did not have Jokowi’s problem of trying to become the standard-bearer of his party. But he had two main challenges: his poor human rights record and his lag in the polls.

Prabowo had to campaign aggressively. He built a huge coalition of several political parties. He expected the party machinery to turn out votes for him.

Prabowo also counted on his coalition partners to attack Jokowi with a barrage of negative campaigns to create doubt in voters’ minds. Backed by media moguls and his billionaire brother, Hashim Dojohadikusumo, Prabowo had an effective campaign team that spread his message all over the place.

The tactics worked, thanks to the ineffectual responses from Jokowi’s team. By the end of June, Prabowo was neck-and-neck with Jokowi in the polls.

Jokowi’s lucky factors

Several factors helped Jokowi salvage his campaign. First, and most importantly, Jokowi managed to attract a number of dedicated volunteers who were willing to spend their own money and work tirelessly to spread his messages to voters.

The effect of those volunteers could hardly be overestimated. They organised a massive pro-Jokowi concert on the weekend before the election. The concert, which was held on the same day as the last presidential debate, managed to mobilise youth voters to support him.

The second factor was the presidential debates. While the debates did little to influence undecided voters, the main purpose of the debate for the campaigns was to mobilise and energise the debate winner’s supporters.

Here, Prabowo failed to use the debates to question Jokowi’s fitness as a leader and undermine the moral of Jokowi’s supporters. Instead, Prabowo appeared unprepared in the first debate. Meanwhile, Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, used the the debates as a showcase of their program and can-do mentality.

Prabowo and his running mate, Hatta Rajasa, performed well in the second and fourth debates. However, Jokowi and Kalla handily won the final debate. That momentum continued to election day.

The third factor, which was beyond anyone’s control, was the fiasco of the polling in Hong Kong. Hundreds of Indonesia’s migrant workers were denied the right to vote after the polling station closed at 5 pm (HKT) on Sunday. The Indonesian Election Commission was accused of purposely preventing Jokowi’s supporters from casting their votes.

While the details are still sketchy and in dispute, this created an impression among Jokowi’s supporters that Prabowo had managed to turn the system and the Election Commission against them. This incident galvanised Jokowi’s supporters and increased their turnout in Wednesday’s election.

These three factors helped propel Jokowi’s recovery. He thus managed to stem his losses and prevail against Prabowo. It was a close call, though, and Jokowi won in spite of his party’s poor performance.