On 17 April, 190 million people will head to the polls to participate in the world’s third-largest democracy. Isabel Dunstan explains five ways the Indonesian elections will be important.

Chatham House
Apr 16 · 6 min read
Ballot boxes are prepared for distribution to polling stations ahead of the general election on 17 April 2019 pitting incumbent President Joko Widodo against Prabowo who he defeated in the last election in 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

(1) Every election is critical for a democracy this young.

Indonesia has a lot to be proud of — and this pride is on full display during election time. In just a few decades, the southeast Asian nation has defied the odds that would otherwise cripple young democracies. 21 years ago, corrupt dictator, Suharto, fell amid a regional economic crash. The country has since moved on to endure civil conflict, devastating natural disasters and persistent ethnic tensions. Although its struggles continue, the country’s e-commerce industry has boomed and it is home to some of the world’s most admired tourism destinations. In many ways, Indonesia has become a global example in peaceful nation-building given its immensely diverse population across 17,000 islands.

These elections, put simply, are huge. Voters will choose their next president and vice-president for the next five years — becoming the country’s fourth direct presidential election and fifth parliamentary election ever.

At these elections, voters will also elect members of the House of Representatives, 2,207 provincial level MPs across 34 provinces and 17,610 local councillors across more than 500 local authorities. Although administratively complex, cities across the country are ablaze with banners, flags and screens promoting thousands of political candidates.

The Indonesian army prepares to secure the upcoming general election where voters will choose the next president and vice president as well as members of the House of Representatives, regional representative councils and provincial and municipal councils. Photo: Getty Images.

(2) It’s the same players but a different ballgame.

Jokowi vs. Prabowo — déjà vu? The old rivals ran against each other in 2014 when Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo won by a small margin. This year, however, they compete again.

Jokowi, with his humble beginnings as a furniture salesman and his corruption-free track record, was a city mayor before becoming president in 2014. He is a product of a democratic environment that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Often called the ‘Obama of Southeast Asia’ he is the small-town ‘every man’. The motorbike-wielding Metallica fan, Jokowi signalled, what seemed to be, a new era for the fast-developing economy. Fast forward to now and, although he has maintained a lead against his old-rival Prabowo Subianto — around 15 per cent in most polls — he has lost some of the sparkle he once enjoyed.

Jokowi’s pick for his vice presidential candidate came as a disappointment for advocates of pluralism and diversity. Famously conservative, Ma’ruf Amin, is the country’s most powerful Islamic cleric. He has contributed to issuing fatwas against a wide range of issues including one condemning homosexuality and another against the measles vaccination. Fatwas are non-binding legal edicts issued by the top Islamic bodies, usually labelling certain aspects of contemporary life as ‘haram’.

For President Jokowi, appealing to religion is inevitably important in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and negotiating with culturally influential bodies lead by Amin poses a challenge. Additionally, online disinformation campaigns questioning Jokowi’s Muslim identity perhaps explains why he has brought Amin close to address any concerns he is not ‘Muslim enough’ to lead.

Prabowo Subianto, on the other hand, represents an Indonesia-of-old, with his old-school military might and promise to invest in defence. This is his fourth run for the highest office in 15 years and a reputational dark cloud hangs over him — including allegations extending back to his early career in the military. There have been calls for investigations into the role he played in the deaths of East Timorese civilians during the Indonesian occupation in the 1980s in addition to the influence he had in triggering the 1998 riots which resulted in the deaths and rapes of hundreds of women of which he denies all involvement. Prabowo has also pandered to the Islamist right by way of consolidating his conservative base for more than a decade.

However, Prabowo has tried to spruce up his image by electing a fresh-faced running mate called Sandiaga Una. Una, a basketball-playing, internationally educated and self-made billionaire, made his riches in Indonesian coal and now his heart is set on the 2019 vice-presidency — and likely the presidency in 2024. Together, the Prabowo-Sandi partnership has focused on youth and innovation, homegrown jobs, increased military spending and making ‘Indonesia Great Again’.

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s incumbent president, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images.

(3) Roads don’t always win hearts.

Jakarta, a heaving city with the geographic size of London and more than 10 million people, finally has its first metro line. Infrastructure expenditure reached $155 billion — or 99.2 per cent of allocated budget — the highest since the country gained independence in 1945. Around the country, airport runways, toll roads and sports facilities have been built — all necessary and important for playing catch-up with the nation’s potential as a Southeast Asian powerhouse.

Jokowi is hoping to usher in the next term of his presidency on the back of these infrastructure achievements, however, he has been challenged by criticism of other unfulfilled expectations. During his 2014 campaign, Jokowi promised up to 7 per cent GDP growth per year but it instead stagnated at a steady 5 per cent. He also hasn’t delivered on land rights and recognition demanded by indigenous groups who voted for him. During his term, opportunities were also available to heal old wounds left over from the genocide of more than 500,000 suspected communists in 1965. By electing Ma’ruf Amin, however, he has further alienated rights groups.

A passenger taps a ticket at the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Bundaran HI Station during the first day of commercial operations in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images.

(4) For disenfranchised votersthey Golput.

With Prabowo’s questionable human rights record, and Jokowi’s sidling up with the conservative right, both candidates have alienated large swathes of the voter population. For those who refuse to vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’, there is a third option, however: Golput.

Golput, the act of abstaining from voting is a controversial political statement in a country that has only had a few democratic elections following its long history of dynastic kingdoms, colonial rule and dictatorship.

The term is short for ‘golongan putih’, or ‘white group’, whereby the voter pierces the blank part of the ballot paper instead of the candidate’s checkbox therefore rendering their vote invalid.

Labour and farmer groups, and the nation’s largest union of indigenous rights activists, make up 32 national organizations that have encouraged their members not to vote — and together they make up approximately 30 million people.

Abstention in Indonesia is not a new movement with its roots in the ‘new order’ era of the 1970s. But in a climate of immense change, Golput is a concerning upward trend, raising questions about how inclusive Indonesia’s democratic process really is.

An Indonesian family crammed into a city minibus in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images.

(5) Buzzers, bots and black campaigns: the race against fake news.

Disinformation is a major issue in the current elections. Content includes allegations that President Jokowi is a communist or that Prabowo has shown physical aggression at campaign rallies. Analysts have found disinformation targeting both political camps although both parties have denied they are responsible.

MAFINDO, one organization at the coalface of the fake news war, likened the crisis to the drugs trade where groups of ‘buzzers’ are paid to circulate fake news. As a result, this election has been something of a crash course in critical digital literacy for the public and its institutions.

Google, Twitter and Facebook have established localized teams to promote digital literacy and fact-checking networks while government institutions have clamped down on censorship programmes and criminalization.

Media institutions, too, have established anti-hoax initiatives and a 90-strong group of national institutions known as Siberkreasi has encouraged religious and other community groups to question content before they share. Although these efforts have not stopped the production and circulation of fake news, it may have raised enough awareness to curb its impact.

An election poster campaigning for Muslim interests in Jakarta ahead of the country’s general election. Indonesia’s army of ‘hoax busters’ is working against a surge in fake news just weeks before the world’s third-biggest democracy heads the polls. Photo: Getty Images.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

Written by

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade