Can Prabowo pull off an upset to become the next president of Indonesia?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The upcoming election is a 2014 presidential rematch between Joko Widodo and General Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi leads the polls. But recent elections have demonstrated that polling is not always accurate.


On April 17, 2019, Indonesians will go to the voting booth to decide who will lead the nation for the next five years. While Jokowi leads the polls, Prabowo’s chances cannot be dismissed just yet. The recent Jakarta gubernatorial race and neighbouring Malaysian general election show how the polls can be wrong.

Prabowo struggled in the beginning but is gaining momentum

Earlier in the campaign, Prabowo struggled to gain momentum. His coalition parties were not fully-committed their support. However, Prabowo was able to unite party leaders and has bounced back stronger. The polls show him catching up with nearly 35%, a significant increased from 30% in late 2018. The new numbers have stirred confidence in his base and have made the other side nervous.

Jokowi’s former Minister of Maritime affairs, Rizal Ramli believes that Prabowo could “indeed pull off a surprise, just like Malaysia’s Mahathir victory over Najib Razak.”

There is growing frustration towards the President among Indonesia’s farmers. Low prices and high imports of commodities like corn, sugar, and rice are fueling this frustration.  Elements of Indonesia’s middle-class are also disappointed. Jokowi’s failure to deliver the promised 7% economic growth is beginning to bite. According to Ramli, there is a “desire for change gaining momentum… as people are tired of Jokowi.” Prabowo is seeking to ride this tide for change to victory in the polls.

The economy will be the key issue in deciding the faith of the election

Almost five years after Jokowi’s election, Indonesia’s economy has plateaued at 5% annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

Surging public debt, an increase in commodity imports, and widening trade deficits weigh heavily against Jokowi. Furthermore, Jokowi has been criticized as being too soft on foreign players. Prabowo is offering self-sufficiency and more protectionist economic policies that would focus on improving the lives of the Indonesian people. Prabowo famously said in the second presidential debate, that “the economy should be for the people, not the people for the economy.”

Prabowo wants to increase farmer’s welfare and is seeking to safeguard the price of basic needs by limiting imports of commodities. He has criticised the government for letting large numbers of foreign workers into the country and standing by while foreign companies profit from Indonesia’s natural resources.

The economic issue, according to Colin Brown, a professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, “has worked more in favour of Prabowo.”

Prabowo and his running-mate, Sandiaga Uno, are also making some headway with young voters. Sandiaga’s deliberate attempts to raise awareness of Indonesian’s reduced spending power under Jokowi are having the desired effect. Millennial voters are becoming increasingly concerned with the weakening of the rupiah. As the incumbent, the fingers all point to Jokowi as the culprit.  

The politicization of religion still looms over the elections

Jokowi’s appointment of Cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate appeared to be an attempt to insulate himself from a religious line of attack. His decision brought significant voters from Nahdatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in the country, into the ranks of his supporters. However, the issue has not dissipated.  Instead, the move divided Indonesian Muslims.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The heated Jakarta gubernatorial elections saw the incumbent Basuki Cahaya Purnama or ”Ahok”, who was leading comfortably in the polls, suffer a landmark defeat in an election blighted by religious fervour. The blasphemy accusations levelled at Ahok could still pose a problem for Widodo. Jokowi, who supported Ahok, is still seen as an ally of the Blasphemer.

Jokowi’s administration has also been accused of unfairly detaining the country’s top Muslim clerics. The ban on Muslim group such as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) is also seen as an unjust law against Muslims. Therefore, a large number of Muslims, according to Ramli, may yet vote against Jokowi.

Prabowo needs to prevent further political blunder

Prabowo’s chance to win the presidency is still very much alive. However, his campaign cannot afford any more blunders.

Ratna Sarumpaet, Prabowo’s campaign head and actress, lied about a politically motivated assault. Her injuries were the result of cosmetic surgery. Sandiaga was also caught in a public lie. He claimed to have attended Islamic boarding schools in his youth. In reality, the businessman-turned-politician was educated at two private Christian institutes.

Prabowo has also made several high-profile gaffes. He publicly mocked voters from Boyolali, Central Java, and motorcycle taxi drivers. This string of blunders from Prabowo and his campaign team has stymied some of their attacks and allowed Jokowi to go on the offensive when, as the incumbent, he has built a largely defensive campaign. 

Is there a roadmap to an upset?

Besides focusing voters’ attention on the country’s poor economic performance, Prabowo is likely to continue to mobilise conservative Muslims to unseat Jokowi. Many of the protesters from the 212 Rally, a movement defending Islam against former governor Ahok, are backing Prabowo. Those supporters could be the pivoting point to turn the tables around.

For Prabowo, his roadmap to upset lies in avoiding further blunder and mobilising Muslim voters, while continuing to hammer Jokowi on the economy. If he cannot instil discipline amongst his campaign leaders, the slim route to victory will certainly escape him.

Jokowi is still a stronger candidate to win the presidency. He has been successful in tackling the country’s fundamental problems, transforming infrastructure as well as expanding health and education to the people. Providing he can avoid the election becoming a religious dogfight, he should be able to pick up the necessary votes to win another 5 years in the hot seat.