Voting in the world’s largest Muslim country seen as referendum on incumbent, who faces a tougher challenge from 2014 political nemesis.
Jakarta, Indonesia - The world’s most populous Muslim country heads to the polls on Wednesday in what is seen as a referendum on President Joko Widodo’s rule.
The incumbent is facing a more sustained challenge from his 2014 political nemesis, former army general Prabowo Subianto.
The decision on who will lead the country in the next five years will be in the hands of the 193 million eligible voters, who will be casting their ballots in 800,000 polling stations, spread across an archipelago of 17,000 islands. They will pick from among the 245,000 candidates, who are vying for other national and local positions.
Polling stations will open at 7am local time (+7GMT) on Wednesday but around two million Indonesians, who are eligible to vote overseas, have started voting over the weekend. The government has allocated $1.8 billion to organise for the polls.
In the race for president, the incumbent, also known as Jokowi, is paired with a septuagenarian preacher, Ma’ruf Amin. Opposition candidate, Prabowo, picked as his running-mate the 49-year-old banker and businessman, Sandiaga Uno.
The presidential race has often been framed in blunt terms as a contest between pro and anti democratic forces, and who has the claim to the mantle of religion in a Muslim country founded on pluralism. Still, analysts say the economy could ultimately be the deciding issue, even as the campaign has been marred with the spread of disinformation and contentious calls for a boycott.
In their last debate on Saturday, Jokowi projected optimism telling voters that a “big and good future” awaits them, while Prabowo said that the country is heading in the “wrong direction”, and that he can steer it back to the right path with promises of more industrialisation.
The final survey published by the Jakarta Post before the April 17 elections, showed that Jokowi has maintained his lead of 56.8 percent to Prabowo’s 37 percent, reflecting most of the data from other pollsters.
Prabowo’s campaign insist they have the momentum, and that their internal polling shows his electability is at 62 percent compared to Jokowi’s 38 percent. Independent observers also say that Prabowo’s supporters are better organised, and that undecided voters could swing his way.
“The race is neck-to-neck,” Uni Lubis, editor-in-chief of IDN Times, told TRT World.
She cited another recent survey conducted by Kompas, the most-widely read newspaper in Indonesia, in which Jokowi got 38 percent, with many voters undecided.
'It's the economy'
In 2014, Jokowi narrowly defeated Prabowo, 53 percent to 47 percent.
That year, millennial voters played a crucial role in delivering victory to Jokowi, said Uni.
“I think the millennial voters will determine the outcome of the vote, especially in this election,” Uni said.
But with frustration rising over the president’s unfulfilled campaign promises, including on the issue of the economy and human rights, their inclination to vote this year are in question, she said. Uni pointed to one recent study that showed only 23.4 percent of the millennial respondents, polled in 12 major cities, say they are interested in politics.
“They have the perception that political parties and politicians don’t share their aspirations and care about their lives” particularly on the issue of jobs and the economy, she said.
Under Jokowi, Indonesia’s GDP grew an average of five percent. But that is lower than his growth target of seven percent, leading some economists to call the economy “stagnant”. The trade deficit has also ballooned to $8 billion and foreign direct investments are down almost nine percent in 2018.
Even in 2014, when Jokowi won, about 53 percent of the millennial voters skipped the election, according to the Kompas news website.
In this year’s election, a number of young voters have also expressed disappointment at Jokowi’s choice of vice president, Uni said.
Alda Zelfiana, 17, is among those who are voting for president for the first time. She said that she wants an Indonesian government free of corruption.
Regy, 22, is also a first-time voter in Jakarta.
“I am very excited about it. I hope that Indonesians will have more freedom, wherever they are in the country. Whoever they will choose, I think every young Indonesian has the same big hopes for our president,” he said.
Fadjroel Rachman, an independent presidential candidate in 2009 and adviser to Jokowi in 2014, agreed that the reaching out to millennial voters has been a challenge.
“I have two millennial children, and I always try to ask what are the goals of the newer generation,” Fadjroel told TRT World.
“Many young people revolve around a more apolitical ecosystem,” he said. “But they are also reasonable and rational, so I hope that in the end they will vote for Jokowi.”
'Golput' or abstention
At this late stage in the game, he expressed confidence in a Jokowi victory, adding that his poll numbers look “insurmountable”.
“I cannot imagine what kind of action the opposition would do to overcome Jokowi’s lead,” he said, adding that even though the president missed his GDP growth target by two percentage points, he has managed to deliver on major infrastructure projects, including Jakarta’s metro railway.
He said a Prabowo victory would be a step back for Indonesian democracy.
Fadjroel also dismissed the impact the boycott movement, also known as Golput, on the elections, saying that in the history of free elections in the country since 1999, the proportion of boycotters has always stayed relatively the same at about 30 percent. That means there will still be a turnout of 70 percent, he added.
Fadjroel was a student activist at the University of Indonesia during the rule of Soeharto. He recalled how he and his fellow students barricaded the university campus as they called for the ouster of the former strongman in 1998. Prabowo is a former son-in-law of Soeharto.
“When we abstained from voting during Soeharto’s time, we were the democratic voice. We are in a democratic era now, so those who are actively calling to boycott the voting are just part of the democratic noise.”
Aside from a boycott call, there have also been reports of alleged vote-buying online.
Yet another source of controversy in the 2019 presidential election is the emergence of fake news, more commonly referred to in Indonesia as “disinformation” or “hoax”.
The Jokowi and Prabowo campaigns have been the target of disinformation. Among others, Jokowi has been accused of being a communist and not being sufficiently Muslim, while Prabowo’s critics claim he wants to establish a caliphate in Indonesia. The allegations have been denied by both candidates.
Anisa Pratita Kirana Mantovani, research manager of the Center for Digital Society at the University of Gadja Mada in Yogjakarta, told TRT World that in this election season the amount of fake news has been unprecedented.
But contrary to common belief, 55.61 percent of the voters are making an an effort to verify information when they receive them, she said, citing a recent study.
“The number of fake news is still high, but there is an indication that people start checking, verifying and comparing information,” she said.
Mantovani credits the traditional and new media in Indonesia for starting to push back against the dangers of disinformation, by carrying out fact-checking efforts.
“We are really concerned about the issue of fake news and digital literacy. We believe that digital technology has the power to mislead us with false news and it has a significant impact on us,” she said.
“There is also suspicion that fake news does not only rise from the political campaign, but a phenomenon in which fake news has become a commodity and people are actually taking advantage of it in this political year,” Anisa added.
Whoever wins in the presidential elections, she said, the government, news media, and the social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, must work together to increase digital literacy, she said.
“Fake news is not about the presidential election, and it is a long term issue that we should tackle.”
She said it is up to the next Indonesian president to lead and rally the country to fight it.