Widodo’s hard lessons to take into 2018 and 2019

Photo: Joko Widodo official Facebook page
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What lessons has Widodo learnt from the ferocious gubernatorial election in Jakarta? Will his PDIP draw on them to help in the 2018 and 2019 elections?

By Oliver Ward

The Indonesian political landscape changed beyond recognition in 2017. Ahok sits behind bars for blasphemy. The government is licking its wounds after its heated confrontation with conservative Islam. But there is no time for President Joko Widodo to rest. 2018 and 2019 will be two more fiercely contested election years. The regional elections will take place in 2018. Widodo will run in the 2019 presidential election.

Has Jokowi learnt from the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election?

Islamic hardline groups hijacked the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. It ended in defeat for President Joko Widodo’s candidate of choice, Ahok. There will be 171 regional gubernatorial and mayoral elections in 2018.  Jokowi will need a comprehensive strategy for competing with Islamic hardliners.

Jokowi has learnt from last year. He is better prepared for the next round of elections. Joko Widodo banned Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). HTI is an Indonesian Islamist group. It supports the installation of a caliphate. Its banners were present at many anti-Ahok rallies last year.

Widodo also amended the regulations on mass movements. He made it easier to outlaw groups which go against the government’s Pancasila ideology. The amendments have strengthened the government’s position going into the elections.

But his reforms could backfire

Indonesian governments have a history of employing harsh tactics to crush political opposition. Suharto’s New Order employed aggressive measures to preserve the Pancasila ideology. Groups on both sides of politics have criticised Jokowi’s amendments.

By banning HTI, Jokowi risks assisting its cause. HTI and other Islamist groups can position themselves as downtrodden victims. It might give conservative Islamists a paintbrush. They will use it to paint Jokowi in the same paint as Suharto.

A significant percentage of the electorate welcome hardline Islam in Indonesian politics. 60% of the population think Indonesia’s legal system should incorporate Sharia law.

In October 2017, Alvara Research Centre surveyed Indonesian students under 35. 22% of students in high school and university supported introducing Sharia-based bylaws. This figure rose to 28% among working professionals.

Jokowi is still in a strong position

Heading into the 2018 and 2019 elections, Jokowi is still looking strong. In December, his approval rating was 56.4%. However, the regional elections will be the perfect barometer for his popularity.

Sources: Nikkei, Channel News Asia

All eyes will be on West Java. It holds the most number of voters. In the 2014 presidential election, Jokowi’s opponent took the lion’s share of the vote. In the upcoming gubernatorial election, Ridwan Kamil is the favourite to win. He is the mayor of Bandung and enjoys a wealth of support among Indonesia’s youth. He is running as an independent candidate. But he has been reluctant to accept Jokowi’s endorsement

The West Kalimantan region also offers a good litmus test for 2019. It is an ethnically diverse region. Catholics, Christians and Muslims make up its population. One of the region’s candidates has already called for Muslim voters to vote for a Muslim candidate. He has likely offered a taste of what is to come.

There are eight provinces where Jokowi has an approval rating of under 50%. In 2014, he lost five of them. These eight provinces will be the most important for Jokowi. If the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) candidates do not perform well in these regions, he has little hope of winning them in 2019. He must pick his endorsements carefully.

Jokowi and the PDIP’s record will go up against identity politics

The question is, what role will identity politics play in the way people will vote? Jokowi and the PDIP have a strong record of economic reform. They have invested heavily in Indonesian infrastructure development. The public has a good perception of his performance.  The public believe he has performed well in infrastructure, healthcare, education and corruption.

A recent Financial Times Confidential Research (FTCR) survey found that 65% of Indonesians did not believe Jokowi’s administration undermined Islamic values. 90% believed that Pancasila is consistent with Islamic values. These stats are important for Widodo and the PDIP. They show that the Indonesian public does not believe his Islamist critics claims.

This is half the battle for Widodo. His oppressive amendments may have awarded his opponents cheap points. He cannot afford to give away any more.

His path two victory lies in convincing the public of two facts. Firstly, that he has performed well as president since his election in 2014. Secondly, that there is no foundation to the claims his administration is un-Islamic. This is the only way to take the wind out of the sails of his critics. At the moment, he is succeeding. But five months is a lifetime in politics. June is a long way away.