What does Indonesia’s upcoming election mean for the country’s politics?

Vote counting during the 2019 Presidential Election. Photo: Jeromi Mikhael / CC BY-SA

Indonesia’s regional election in December will offer insight on the political impacts of COVID-19, the state of the country’s opposition and what’s to come in the 2024 presidential contest.

By Umair Jamal

The upcoming regional election in Indonesia will tell a lot about the future of the country’s politics and potential candidates for the next presidential election in 2024.

As the December election approaches, Indonesia’s ruling coalition, led by President Joko Widodo, is viewing the vote as an opportunity to consolidate power at the national and grassroots levels.

Opposition parties in Indonesia remain weak and fragmented, as the country’s political system does not generally support a strong opposition, both inside and outside the Parliament. Currently, there are nine parties with representation in Parliament, the majority of them allied with the ruling coalition.

However, with the country recording the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in Southeast Asia, the pandemic is certain to impact voter’s choices. The ruling coalition will face setbacks unless its alliances with regional leaders and parties succeed.

The election is also important for Indonesia’s political dynasties, as December’s local election may also decide whether Widodo’s family becomes the country’s latest political dynasty.

The election could also offer important hints on how voters are feeling about the current government, economy, local political alliances and more.

How is December’s election relevant to the 2024 presidential election?

Although the next presidential election is far off, December’s poll will set the pace for potential candidates running for the top slot.

Last year, for the first time in the country’s history, Indonesia held presidential, parliamentary and regional elections on the same day. The period leading up to those elections was marred by politicians resorting to regressive identity politics to win polls. Political parties switched sides, employed opportunistic politics and made political deals in attempts to win the election. The current president and his political support base are not new to such political tactics.

In Indonesia, regional elections and alliances made at the local level play a large role in determining who wins at the national level. Political candidates are already eyeing the coming election as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for their runs in the 2024 presidential election. In this regard, effective handling of COVID-19 has brought praise for some regional governors and mayors, including Jakarta’s Anies Baswedan, West Java’s Ridwan Kamil, Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini and Central Java’s Ganjar Pranowo and Khofifah Indar Parawansa. After December’s election, these leaders may work with their alliances to formally start preparing for a presidential bid.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote. Photo: DFAT photo library shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Why is there no genuine political opposition in Indonesia?

Indonesia’s political landscape is not generally supportive of strong opposition.

Traditionally, infighting within parties has led to the formation of new parties, including the Gerindra Party and the NasDem Party.

Indonesia’s political landscape requires that political parties support the ruling coalition to ensure their survival. For one, financial support for parties in Indonesia often comes from corporate elites that have wide-ranging political and business interests. Financial backers prefer to support parties in power, which forces parties in the opposition to support the government.

The need for financial resources has forced parties in the House of Representatives to become more pliant towards the government. Chris Rowley and Maria dela Rama, in their book “The Changing Face of Corruption in the Asia Pacific,” note that “apart from donations from big businesses, parties depend on public resources, particularly through their access to strategic positions within government institutions.”

“Positions within the cabinet are an important gateway for political parties to access public resources, which constitute their main financial revenue,” they write.

In Indonesia, political party leaders must also be approved by the Law and Human Rights Ministry, which further shrinks the space for the opposition. Such structural handicaps may offer the ruling coalition an electoral advantage as the COVID-19 crisis continues to shake the country and its economy. 

Will COVID-19 impact voters’ choices?

COVID-19 is an important factor in the upcoming election, as the government’s response to the health crisis has been far from ideal. COVID-19 cases in the country continue to rise and the mortality rate still tops the global average. Around 5.1 million people were projected to fall below the poverty line by the end of June 2020 due to COVID-19’s impact on Indonesia’s economy. The pandemic has forced millions into unemployment.

The feeble response from the government is likely to land the ruling coalition and its regional partners in hot water. Voters will be more thoughtful with their choices as discontent with the government’s COVID-19 response grows.

This situation offers new candidates an opportunity to win support at the expense of established leaders and parties. Regions and districts that have seen leaders perform poorly in terms of dealing with the crisis may see a lot of old faces thrown from office, making space for a new political class.

What does the election mean for Indonesia’s dynastic politics?

Since independence in 1945, Indonesia’s political elites have repeatedly brought their family members into public office and political families have maintained their dominance in local and national politics.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo being sworn in for his second term. Photo: State Secretariat of Indonesia / Public domain

Indonesia’s current president is also trying to see his family members succeed in December’s regional election, in an attempt to consolidate power and potentially become Indonesia’s latest political dynasty. The fate of the Widodo’s relatives in the approaching polls will have an important impact on the family’s political future.

Beyond Widodo’s family, children of other prominent politicians have also shown their political ambitions. For instance, Siti Nur Azizah, daughter of Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, is going to begin her political career by contesting a mayoral election in December. Interestingly, Azizah will be running against another ambitious political figure, Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusumo, who is the niece of Indonesia’s defense minister.

The course of these campaigns by children of well-known political figures may offer useful insights regarding the maturity of the Indonesian electorate. Along with the impacts of COVID-19 and hints towards 2024 presidential bids, these will be key pieces to watch in December’s poll.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15