Much Ado About Everything No 20: Indonesia — The Election Starts In Earnest

Jokowi is firm favourite. But it would be unwise to write off entirely the populist Prabowo

Indonesia’s next general election will be held on 17 April when up to 190 million voters could head to the polls. For the first time ever, the president, the vice president and members of the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat Republik Indonesia (MPR-RI), Indonesia’s bicameral parliament, will be elected on the same day, as well as local councils.

This article focuses on the presidential election, which — although campaigning officially began in September — kicked off in earnest today with the first of five live TV debates. Incumbent Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), pictured, will run for re-election against former general Prabowo Subianto in what is, in effect, a rerun of the 2014 presidential contest (which Mr Widodo won by 6.3pp). The outcome will be determined on a direct, simple majority system.

Recent opinion polls give Mr Widodo a lead of around 20pp. However, Indonesian polls are notoriously unreliable so all such data should be treated with considerable caution. Furthermore, the consequent uncertainty of this is compounded by around a quarter of the electorate being reckoned as ‘undecided’ and/or ‘swing’ voters. Nevertheless, it does appear that Mr Prabowo has something of a mountain to climb.

To help him to do so, it appears that the President has not just one but two Achilles’ heels.

First, in his 2014 election campaign he committed to average GDP growth in Indonesia of 7% per annum; the reality has been just 5%. All the signs so far are that Mr Prabowo, who has been a noted exponent of angry populism in past campaigns, will focus firmly on the economy. His running mate is the very successful businessman Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, consistent with a strong echo in his first major campaign speech earlier this week of businessman Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” election slogan.

[Note: The vice presidential candidates also participate in the presidential TV debates.]

Second, Mr Widido is frequently accused of not being sufficiently pious as a Muslim and not caring enough about ‘Muslim issues’. Recall that a conservative Islamic movement toppled the Christian governor of Jakarta, a Widodo ally, in 2017 and he was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. However, Mr Widodo is nothing like as vulnerable on this count; and, probably in significant part as further insurance, he has as his running mate a senior Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin.

For his part, Mr Prabowo is certainly vulnerable on human rights (one of the topics of the first TV debate). He was married to President Suharto’s (1968-1998) daughter and was a feared general in the later years of the dictator’s rule until he was dismissed (but not court-martialed) in 1998 for ordering the kidnapping of 20 student activists (13 of whom remain unaccounted for). Nevertheless, his candidacy appeals to conservative Muslims and older voters nostalgic for strong leadership.

On balance, therefore, the election does appear to be Mr Widodo’s to lose. However, consistent with the parallel I have frequently drawn in the past between Indonesia and Brazil as far as economic (under-)performance is concerned, I cannot help but note that the latter has just opted for a ‘strongman leader’ and wonder if the former may yet do the same. A Prabowo victory may not look like a high probability; but the same was said of Donald Trump right up until 9 November 2016. Furthermore, and closer to ‘home’, last year we pretty much all got it wrong over Malaysia's general election (me included)!

The bottom line? Investors in particular would do well to follow this election closely. Furthermore, they should remember how firm their conviction was that Mr Widodo's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, would grasp the nettle of long-overdue structural reforms in his second term and the disappointment which followed.

Alastair Newton

[Footnote: As this series reaches its twentieth article and with new readers coming on board, I think it worth reiterating its basic purpose. The underpinning principle is that, if one were to take much of the media at face value, every headline-grabbing story matters enormously. That is, until the next one comes along. A much more fast moving version of an adage from my childhood, ie: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers”. So, the aim of this series is simply to try to keep us all focused on what really matters. And Indonesia certainly qualifies in my book**.]**