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A woman folds ballot papers for Indonesia's presidential election 2024

Indonesia’s presidential election may go to run-off, despite what the polls say

In less than two weeks, Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, will simultaneously hold presidential and general elections. Held on Valentine’s Day, it is being touted as the world’s biggest single-day election.

Read more: Indonesia will hold the world's biggest single day election: here is what you need to know

With three presidential candidates running, the current electoral rules require a candidate to win at least 50% of the national vote and at least 20% of the vote in each province to avoid a runoff.

The country’s various polling institutions have forecast that the frontrunner, former general Prabowo Subianto, and his vice-presidential candidate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, will likely win the first round. But whether they will get enough votes to win the election outright or be forced into a runoff is still unclear.

They are competing against two other pairs of candidates – Anies Baswedan, the former Jakarta governor, and his running mate, Muhaimin Iskandar; and Ganjar Pranowo, the former Central Java governor, and his running mate Mahfud MD.

A credible polling institute, Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI), predicts Prabowo could squeak out an outright victory in the first round with 50.7% of the vote. This was based on a survey of 1,200 respondents.

Another well-respected pollster, Indikator, shows Prabowo garnering 56.2% of the votes in East Java, the electorate with the second-highest number of voters in the country.

Indikator’s latest projection has also slightly revised an earlier national poll showing that Prabowo is very close to winning the election outright.

A woman casts her vote in an election in Pekalongan, Central Java. Shutterstock

Despite the major pollsters’ predictions, it is still too early to declare he will definitely win the presidency in the first round for at least two reasons.

First, a poll is simply a poll – a sampling of a tiny number of people to predict the entire population’s preferences.

Based on their performances so far, it is doubtful that credible polling institutes like Indikator and LSI have gotten their methods wrong. Far from it, they have done everything possible to get the most accurate results.

But they may fail to accurately capture the bigger picture simply due to the variable nature of voters.

Read more: A third of Indonesian voters bribed during election – how and why

In contrast to what conspiracy theorists may insinuate about the credibility of polling institutes in Indonesia, a national survey is merely a representative snapshot based on a sampling of a limited number of voters. This is why there is a margin of error.

Take, for example, Indikator’s prediction of the support for the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in the 2019 legislative election. A few weeks before the election, Indikator predicted the PKS would receive 6% of the vote nationally. In reality, the party received 8.21%.

Indikator’s prediction was still within the margin of error of 2.9%, meaning the the model worked as it should.

In this year’s election, PKS is supporting Anies. With PKS’s voters concentrated in several areas, Anies’ share of the votes may actually be higher than what is reflected in the polls. Thus, the total votes received by Prabowo may vary enough to prevent him from winning the election outright.

Anies Baswedan. Shutterstock

Furthermore, even at this point, there are still a significant number of voters (about 5.78% nationally and 12.1% of voters in East Java) whose preferences remain unclear.

Second, it’s still too early to declare Prabowo the winner is the fact that candidates may still make blunders in the final two weeks, which could impact their chances.

In the latest vice-presidential debate, for instance, Gibran faced a significant backlash from the public after disrespecting Mahfud MD, a seasoned professor much older than him. Being disrespectful towards older people is still frowned upon in conservative Indonesia.

While it is unclear how many votes Prabowo may have lost due to this show of disrespect, anecdotal evidence suggests there is a growing dislike of Gibran among some voters – especially ethnic Maduranese, Mahfud MD’s ethnic group.

The question of ethics surrounding the Prabowo-Gibran pairing also continues to dog their reputation among the public.

Gibran, the 36-year-old son of current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, secured his candidacy following a controversial decision by the Indonesian Constitutional Court to lower the age limits for both presidential and vice-presidential candidates to below 40. The court was led at the time by Jokowi’s in-law, Anwar Usman, who was demoted over the controversial ruling following a public protest.

There are also growing concerns that Jokowi is abusing his powers to support his son. For example, Jokowi increased the salaries of civil servants and military officers in late January in what some believe to be an attempt to sway their votes. The military officers cannot vote, but their families can.

Some analysts have also questioned Jokowi’s apparent authoritarian turn in recent weeks, prompting Prabowo’s opponents to see this election as an important choice between democracy and authoritarianism.

Anies even brought this issue up in the first debate as a way to frame this election – obviously to his benefit.

Universitas Islam Indonesia rector Fathul Wahid shares his concerns on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s latest stunts to support his son running as a vice presidential candidate. Fathul’s protest was followed by other universities across the archipelago.

Professors at universities across Indonesia have also conveyed their grave concerns on these recent political moves by Jokowi.

Considering none of the latest polls are strongly indicating an outright Prabowo victory, a runoff in the presidential election is still likely. This would be even more likely if Prabowo or Gibran commit another blunder in the coming days.

With an election this close, Prabowo and his team should be far more concerned about winning the election in round one than being overly confident and perhaps losing in a runoff months down the road.

The article has been updated to add details about the voting rights of Indonesian military personnel and their families.

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