The 2019 Indonesian presidential election race starts here

Photo: Joko Widodo official Facebook page

After politicians rejected proposed changes to the election nominations, manoeuvres ahead of the 2019 Indonesian Presidential election are underway.

By John Pennington

Opportunities for political reform do not come around very often. Indonesian politicians recently rejected proposed changes to the nominating process for presidential elections. Ahead of the 2019 election, the existing rules remain in place.

Parties must have 20% of seats in parliament or earn 25% of the popular vote to field a candidate. Although the House of Representatives approved plans to remove the threshold, the People’s Representative Council could not reach a consensus.

Therefore, the existing rules will remain in place for the next presidential election. Who stands to benefit most from retaining the status quo?

Analysts expect another two-horse race

Maintaining the threshold means that smaller parties will be unable to field candidates. It is unlikely that more than two or three candidates will stand due to the fragmented nature of Indonesian politics: the ruling coalition comprises five parties and the opposition coalition seven.

In 2014, no one party met the thresholds in place, so the parties formed two coalitions – one behind winner Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi) and one in support of his opponent Prabowo Subianto.

However, the National Mandate Party (PAN), part of the ruling coalition, joined Gerindra, Prosperous Justice and the Democratic Party, in boycotting the vote, suggesting that alliances in place at the moment may not hold firm.

The incumbent President is in a strong position

Jokowi successfully won an election under the same system three years ago and is well placed to do so again. His approval ratings are good, and some parties have already declared they will throw their weight behind him.

He also has support from the public. In a recent poll carried out by Indo Barometer, 57.8% of respondents said they would vote for him again. In another poll where pollsters put him up against 17 potential rivals, he received 45.6% of the votes with no other candidate breaking the 10% mark. When put head to head with Prabowo, he led 50.2% to 28.8%.

“Jokowi was favoured in the survey due to his closeness to the people, his administration’s past performance and his work ethic,” Muhammad Qadarai, Indo Barometer’s executive director analysed.

Jokowi still has significant tasks ahead of him

Fewer candidates and less choice for the electorate are good news for Jokowi, but that is not to say that he is guaranteed a second term. He will have to ensure he builds a strong coalition with which he can work effectively. He will need to address public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, corruption and poverty.

PAN’s defection during the debate shows he can take little for granted. The alliances may change even if the leaders do not.

Much can still change between now and 2019, but right now, this is a boost for Jokowi’s reelection bid just when he needed one following the loss of the Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Prabowo will probably stand again

Moves are already afoot. Prabowo has launched his bid for election. “If I have the people’s support, and if my health allows it, I will run again,” he said.

Jokowi knows that he needs to do more to strengthen his support among Islamic parties and Islamic voters. The United Development Party (PPP) will support him, but that will not be enough on its own. He was unable to influence the election in Jakarta and now risks being on the wrong side as he faces up to the new reality of Indonesian politics.

“The opposition led by Gerindra will likely start to raise issues to undermine the cohesion of Jokowi’s coalition, as Prabowo lays the groundwork for his presidential election,” assessed Emirza Adi Syailendra, an S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies researcher. “Jokowi has to drive a hard bargain to keep his coalition members from gravitating towards either Prabowo’s or Yudhoyono’s camp,” he added.

Some undecided parties may field candidates

While Golkar, Hanura and PPP have declared for Jokowi, Prabowo is working to garner support. He has already met with Democratic Party leader and former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Both parties wanted the nomination threshold scrapped.

The two men claim no formal coalition deal was struck but say their two parties will cooperate. “We have chosen not to form a so-called coalition; the important thing is to improve our communication and cooperation,” Yudhoyono said.

However, the Democratic Party is still keen on fielding a candidate. “We’re cultivating our next leader, with young Dems members pushing for Agus Harimurti, but we’ll see,” claimed Agus Hermanto, deputy chairman of the party’s advisory board.

The Democratic Party polled 10.2% in the 2014 legislative elections. For them to be able to field a candidate they would need to ally with members of the current opposition coalition or build one by attracting those in the ruling coalition to join them.

Jokowi should also be able to rely on support from the Indonesian Party of Struggle and the National Awakening Party, leaving slim pickings for Prabowo and the Democratic Party.

In Indonesia, the political forecast is for more of the same

Had the election rules been changed, it would have allowed more parties to field candidates and reduced the need for reliance on coalitions which can stall political progress.

Jokowi believes this would hamper Indonesian democracy. “If the presidential threshold was 0%, and a candidate of a small political party won, just imagine the difficulty to win support from Parliament,” he argued.

He also asked, “We used (it) in the 2009 and 2014 elections. Why it did not make a big issue then?” The recent development will have less of an impact on the political landscape than the Jakarta gubernatorial election had.

Jokowi will probably win reelection in 2019

The 2019 Presidential election will probably run along the following lines: Jokowi will successfully form a suitable coalition, partly by making concessions to attract more of the Muslim vote. Depending on the exact makeup of this coalition, he will face no more than two opponents. He will likely win a second term. How high on his agenda political reform will be is up for debate.

Prabowo has made no secret of his disgust about the situation, saying, “The presidential threshold of 20% is a political joke, cheating the people. I would not be part of it.” Should Prabowo somehow win, how hard will he then push to discard the nomination thresholds?

It is a win-win for Jokowi. Maintaining the status quo increases his chances of winning in 2019. Even if he loses, Prabowo will come under pressure to implement changes that could help Jokowi mount a stronger bid in 2024.