Indonesia’s Valentine polls

All eyes are on Indonesia’s elections as 205 million voters will simultaneously decide on who will be their president, vice president, member of the national and provincial parliaments and local representatives tomorrow.

It is the world’s largest single-day election. Early voting has already begun for millions of overseas voters, including over 200,000 Indonesians in Kuala Lumpur at the World Trade Centre (WTC) Kuala Lumpur last Sunday.

Focus has been on the presidency, a three-way race in which the repackaged former general Prabowo Subianto, known for his involvement in the violence in Timor Leste, is now seen as a cat-loving grandfather endorsed by the sitting president Joko Widodo (Jokowi), whose son Gibran Rakabuming Raka is on Prabowo’s ballot as vice-president.

As has been the practice in contemporary Southeast Asia, former opponents are now allies in the strategic pursuit of power.

Jokowi aims to ensure that his political legacy is protected and his power retained, a practice maintained through dynastic politics.

Prabowo is running against academic and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle’s (PDIP) Ganjar Pranowo, who lost out when Jokowi fell out with PDIP president and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri last summer.

Recent polls are suggesting that Prabowo may win in the first round. If he fails to reach the 50 percent mark, a second round will be held in June.

Many see a Prabowo victory as an indication of democratic backsliding, given the general’s tainted past and his nationalistic anti-democratic statements ranging from ending direct elections to removals of checks on presidential power.

The election, however, is about much more than the presidency. It will shape the direction of Indonesia’s democracy more broadly, which has seen to have contracted in recent years due to polarisation, curbing of freedoms, weakening of political parties and elite deal-making.

Given Indonesia’s prominence in Southeast Asia, it will also influence the path for democracy in Southeast Asia as a whole, a path that has also suffered significant backsliding in recent years.

This piece looks at the analysis of the campaign so far.

Dominant frames understanding the campaign

Three analytical lenses have mainly been used to interpret Indonesia’s 2024 election.

The first stressed the role of Jokowi and his popularity in helping Prabowo’s campaign. Here personality and personal popularity are important, with Prabowo running on Jokowi’s endorsement.

No question Prabowo would not be even close to winning the presidency without Jokowi’s support.

A second has looked at the importance of social media and youth voters, who comprise 52 percent of Indonesia’s electorate and have no memory of the controversial actions of the general during Indonesia’s pivotal political transition of 1998-1999 and withdrawal from Timor Leste.

If Prabowo does win outright, youth will be seen as being influenced by Prabowo’s likeability campaign on social media (notably TikTok), supported by artificial intelligence using algorithms to reach undecided and less informed voters.

The 2024 campaign has used social media in new ways, influencing voters by engaging them through careful targeting personally rather than collectively.

The campaign messaging and mediums of engagement speak to ongoing trends in election campaigns, where engagement with voters is seen as less overtly “political” but means to secure power, often funded by those with greater resource advantages.

This “likeability” trend was evident in the Philippines 2022 Bongbong Marcos presidential campaign, and also helps us understand the Muhyiddin Yassin-Perikatan Nasional boost in Malaysia’s 15th general election that same year.

A third frame looks at the contests regionally, in highly contentious and populous areas such as Jakarta (testing Anies’ support), Central Java (testing Ganjar’s base) and East Java and West Sumatra (testing Prabowo’s strength).

The “hot zones” will be also decisive in determining whether there is a second round for the presidency and shape the composition of Indonesia’s parliament, the Dewan Pewakilan Rakyat (DPR).

Competitive legislative contests and party fortunes

Nearly 10,000 candidates from 18 parties are running for office in the 580 seats of the DPR, in highly competitive races.

The parliament composition is expected to follow the trend of the past, diverse representation, with no single party gaining a majority and thus the requirement for alliances, brokering/patronage and consensus-building.

The issue will be which of the political parties has the most bargaining power and how they are related to who wins the presidency.

There has been less analytical attention to the fortunes of political parties compared to the past, as Indonesia’s political parties have weakened overall and become more fragmented.

Parties have long been political vehicles for their leaders. Since the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004, presidential candidates have been able to brand new parties and bring them into the parliament.

Prabawo is hoping his party Gerindra will get a similar boost this election, offsetting other more established parties. The question will be whether his party will have enough support to influence the control of the legislature.

The Valentine election will shape whether Indonesia has a divided government – influencing governance – and who will comprise the opposition.

Traditionally, Indonesia’s consensus orientation – with all the parties wanting a share in the patronage and seat in government – has prevailed. Yet the 2024 campaign has been divisive, especially for PDIP, the largest party in the current DPR, and may create a different, stronger opposition.

All of the different presidential candidates have created alliances of parties supporting them but these ties may change once after election results are in. This is one of the most challenging features of democracy in Southeast Asia, voters get a very different government from the one they voted for.

Post-election elite deals focus on themselves, often not respecting the election mandate. As this has happened often in Indonesia, political parties have become increasingly delegitimised and lost support among their grassroots.

Parties have also weakened through consensus political alliances that have made it harder to identify one political party from another.

Many ordinary voters in Indonesia have expressed greater disengagement in the 2024 campaign, believing the system no longer has a place for the “orang kecil” (ordinary people).

Ironically, the “man of the people” Jokowi’s deal-making has narrowed the space for ordinary voters and traditional party-based campaigning.

Nevertheless, political parties and social organisations – especially religious Islamic organisations – play important roles in shaping outcomes regionally in Indonesia, mobilising voters and influencing choices.

The parties to watch out for are Gerindra, Golkar, PDIP and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the Islamist party with the strongest connection to Anies and comparatively more dynamic grassroots compared to the other most prominent Islamic party National Awakening Party (PKB).

Polls suggest Jokowi’s pre-election deal-making has had an impact.

What has made this year interesting has been a growing divide between traditional support for parties and candidate choice; more voters are reporting splitting their vote, supporting their party in some of the contests and a candidate not aligned with their party for other contests, especially the presidency.

Nowhere is this clearer than in PDIP, where Jokowi has undercut support for the party by encouraging the party base to vote for Prabowo. How much of an impact it made will be evident in the election results.

Identity politics in the background and localities

What has differed in this campaign compared to previous ones, especially the 2017 contest to be the Jakarta governor between Anies and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, has been lesser prominence on the issues of race and religion.

The 2024 campaign overall has stayed away from strong ethicised language, and openly avoided the ethnic nationalism of Prabowo’s 2019 campaign.

Identity politics has still mattered, however, with race and religion influencing support for Anies in Jakarta and other areas where the Chinese minority are present and in more Christian areas of Indonesia.

Some voters still remember the traumatic divisiveness of the 2017 campaign.

Ethnicity matters most, however, in localities, shaping support for individual candidates. Across Indonesian communities, there has been a quiet but concerted appeal to ethnic loyalties, a reflection of its ethnic diversity.

Religion has also served to mobilise. Nationally, Anies has relied the most on religious organisations in his campaign but Prabowo has also made appeals to religious groups.

Similar to race, the place where religious mobilisation has mattered the most is in local contests and for the national and provincial parliaments. Islamist PKS appears best poised to strengthen its representation nationally due to its greater appeal among younger voters.

Pre-election polls suggest that there will be multiple Islamic parties in the DPR – a fragmented Islamic party representation in keeping with the differences in interpreting Islam in Indonesia itself. It is not yet clear whether the overall share of Islamic parties will increase.

What is clear, however, is that Islamist messaging has arguably become less prominent in the overall campaign, in part as these parties have become part of the political woodwork, deal-making and in the process, become less focused on religion and more focused on having a place at the political table.

The identity divide that has emerged in the 2024 campaign is an ideological one, with Prabowo portrayed as more conservative, less democratic and his competitors as the more liberal ones, portrayed as the protectors of democracy.

This parallels what happened in the last weeks of the 2019 campaign, boosting Jokowi’s political fortunes then. It does not appear to have quite the same clout this time, in part due to liberal forces being more fragmented.

High stakes Valentine polls

We will obviously know the effects of these factors in the results from Indonesia’s Valentine poll. Who and which parties will get a special Valentine will soon be known. Voters will show who their love (or not).

The stakes for democracy are not just whether a majority of Indonesians will vote for the least pro-democratic candidate or whether a new opposition/divided government will emerge from the DPR vote.

There have been worrying undemocratic trends in the campaign to date, from the likeability of political campaigns, reconstructions of history and remade candidates to the pre-election deals.

Equally concerning are the coming post-election deals, which can often undercut election mandates. Indonesia is not alone in facing these issues.

Twenty-five-plus years after the difficult 1998-1999 political transition, Indonesia’s success that it had in the last decade with its economy and rise as a global power is a reminder that democracy offers a strong foundation to manage differences and move forward.

The sheer number of ordinary Indonesians coming out to vote, taking full advantage of this opportunity to determine their future in higher numbers and share than in many other countries globally, showcases democratic strength and vibrancy.

That most of the voters are young speaks to a deepening democratic resilience. It is this resilience that will hold the country in good stead, no matter who (and which parties) win.


First published on Malaysiakini.