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Incumbent Jokowi Remains Favorite One Month Before Indonesian Election

Ahmad Syamsudin and Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Jakarta
2019-03-18
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Vice presidential candidates Ma'ruf Amin (C) and Sandiaga Uno (L) sign a document pledging to run a peaceful campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta, Sept. 23, 2018.
Vice presidential candidates Ma'ruf Amin (C) and Sandiaga Uno (L) sign a document pledging to run a peaceful campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta, Sept. 23, 2018.
AFP

Incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is still the frontrunner one month before Indonesia’s presidential election, with the most recent surveys indicating that he is favored by more than 54 percent of voters.

Four surveys released this month put Jokowi’s electability at between 54 and 57 percent, compared to around 34 percent for the opposition candidate, former general Prabowo Subianto.

About 11 percent of voters were still undecided, according to the surveys.

A poll released on Sunday by the private pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) predicted that Jokowi would win 57.6 percent of the votes if the election were held now.

“The gap between Jokowi and Prabowo continues to widen,” SMRC director Djayadi Hanan said.

“Is it going to change in one month? We don’t know,” he added.

Rising conservatism

Next month’s election is a rematch of the 2014 contenders. That year, Jokowi beat Prabowo narrowly.

Jokowi picked Ma'ruf Amin, the conservative 76-year-old chairman of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars (MUI), for his running mate, apparently aiming to bolster his religious credentials amid accusations from hardline Islamic groups that he is hostile to them.

Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) have rallied around Prabowo in their short-term goal to prevent Jokowi from being re-elected, but they are unlikely to succeed, said the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in a report released last week.

“Their support for [Prabowo] is conditional and half-hearted, but measures taken by the Jokowi government to try to weaken, co-opt and stigmatize them as extremists have only strengthened what otherwise would be a fragile alliance,” IPAC said.

“Their fear of a Jokowi victory is much stronger than their reservations about Prabowo,” it said.

While Ma’ruf has moderated his comments to appeal to more liberal voters, the Prabowo camp has sought to portray its vice presidential pick, Sandiago Uno, a wealthy 49-year-old businessman educated in the United States, as a pious Muslim.

“The idea of Prabowo as a strongman and Sandi, the charming, pious entrepreneur as his right-hand man, embodies two trends in Indonesia: nostalgia for the Suharto-led New Order and rising conservatism of the middle class,” IPAC said.

VP candidates face off

During a televised debate between Ma’ruf and Sandiaga on Sunday, the two avoided engaging in heated arguments on key policy issues.

Ma’ruf peppered his talk with Arabic and Islamic phrases to impress conservative religious voters during the debate, which focused on education, health, employment and culture.

Sandiaga sought to appeal to younger voters by emphasizing his entrepreneurship prowess, but also tried to demonstrate his knowledge of Islamic terms while showing reverence to his rival by calling him kyai, a Javanese honorific for a Muslim cleric.

It was the third in a series of televised debates involving presidential and vice-presidential candidates ahead of the election.

“Leaders must work for the benefit of their people,” Ma’ruf said in his opening speech.

“Our vision is for Indonesia to be an advanced nation. The key to achieve this lies in its people, a population that is intelligent, productive and has good morals,” Ma’ruf said, using an Islamic term, “akhlaq.”

Ma’ruf said that if he and Jokowi were elected, the government would establish a national research council, build a Sydney-style opera house to show case Indonesia’s arts, and provide free training for job seekers.

“We will conserve our culture and we will globalize our culture so that it becomes known and developed,” he said.

Ma’ruf said wider internet coverage had allowed the country to produce more business startups and “unicorns,” a term for companies with capital valued at U.S. $1 billion or more.

Sandiaga for his part promised that a Prabowo-Sandiaga government would solve problems that have dogged the country’s national health insurance scheme; provide incentives for research; and require foreign workers to master the Indonesian language.

“Stories like that of Ms Lies who had to stop treatment because she had no coverage must not be allowed to happen, even more so when we’re going to be among the world’s five biggest economies in 2045,” Sandiaga said, referring to a cancer patient he met while campaigning.

“Health workers must be paid on time. Drugs must be paid on time. There should not be long queues for patients,” he added.

Indonesia introduced universal health coverage in January 2014, with the aim of having all Indonesians covered by 2019.

But the agency that administers the national insurance scheme, BPJS Kesehatan, has grappled with a deficit of 16.5 trillion rupiah ($1.2 billion).

Sandiaga’s promise to require foreign workers to master Indonesian appears to be intended to allay concerns among some Indonesians about the perceived influx of Chinese laborers amid Jokowi’s focus on building infrastructure.

“There was no debate where one candidate argues and the other attacks the arguments,” Idil Akbar, a political analyst at Padjadjaran University, said of the encounter.

Wasisto Raharjo, a researcher on politics at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said Sandiaga appeared to be reluctant to argue strongly against Ma’ruf due to the latter’s stature as an elderly cleric.

“There was no constructive debate where the candidates correct each other. Maybe Sandiaga was too reverent with Ma’ruf,” he said.

“But Sandi was good at using catchphrases that resonate with many people, such as the issue of foreign workers,” he added.

Ma’ruf was instrumental in the jailing last year of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, on charges of blasphemy.

Conservative Muslim groups held large protests against Ahok in 2016 and 2017 in the run-up to a gubernatorial election in which he was a front-runner, after an edited video made it appear like he said that the Quran deceived people.

An MUI fatwa declaring Ahok’s remarks blasphemous bolstered Muslim opposition to him and paved the way for his prosecution.

Ahok lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election to a Muslim candidate, Anies Baswedan, and was later sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. He was released in January.

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