Indonesia’s National Election: A Referendum on President Jokowi

On April 17, 2019, approximately 150 million of Indonesia’s 193 million registered voters will cast votes to elect their president, all 560 of the country’s members of parliament, and members of provincial and district legislatures. This will be Indonesia’s fifth general election since its democratic transformation in 1998 and the fourth direct election of a president.

Q1: Who is running for president and what is the race about?

A1: President Joko Widodo, universally referred to as Jokowi, is facing retired Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s former son-in-law, in a rematch from the 2014 election, when Jokowi defeated Prabowo in a run-off with 53 percent of the vote. At the time, Jokowi was a newcomer to national politics with just two years as governor of Jakarta under his belt, following seven years as mayor of Solo, a small city in Central Java, where he previously built a modest a furniture export company. Jokowi’s humble roots, personal touch, and reputation for clean governance appealed to a wide swath of Indonesians tired of corrupt Jakarta elites. Prabowo, in contrast, a scion of a leading Jakarta family, ran a combative and at times dirty campaign, running on an image of being a strong leader.

The 2019 contest is largely a referendum on Jokowi’s record, particularly on the economy. While his record has been mixed, neither candidate has offered major new ideas, and Indonesia’s next leader is unlikely to bring major changes in economic policy. At the macro level, the Indonesian economy has grown steadily but underperformed under Jokowi, averaging just over five percent growth, far below the seven percent Jokowi in 2014 pledged to hit and the level needed to reduce poverty significantly. However, Jokowi’s intensive focus on infrastructure development, including in less-developed outer islands, is beginning to bear fruit and has been an achievement to point to on the campaign trail. At the micro level, Jokowi successfully expanded health care and education access, but the price of basic goods remains a major concern for tens of millions of Indonesians and has been a focus for both Jokowi and Prabowo. Likewise, a lack of quality jobs has been a focus for both candidates.

The role of foreign investment in Indonesia has also been a prominent election topic, with each candidate trying to outdo the other in saying they will defend Indonesian sovereignty and protect the country’s natural resources. For Jokowi, this has meant touting decision to end or alter contracts with international giants Freeport, Chevron, and Total.

Beyond the economy, Jokowi has faced widespread criticism from many who voted for him in 2014 for his inclination to accommodate interests of Indonesia’s entrenched elite, as he has done repeatedly to gain allies in various important quarters in Jakarta. In particular, his appointment of retired generals with spotty human rights records to top government posts, his waffling in the face of rising Islamic-based identity politics, and the politicization of the nation’s Corruption Eradication Commission have disillusioned many who hoped that Jokowi would change Indonesian politics. A case in point was his decision to name Ma’ruf Amin, a controversial cleric to be his vice-presidential running mate out of deference to coalition parties and to protect himself from unfounded accusations that he is not a good Muslim.

Q2: Who is going to win?

A2: Every poll and every pollster in Indonesia projects a comfortable Jokowi victory, with the margin expected to be more than 10 percent. In addition to remaining personally popular with many voters, Jokowi has the institutional backing of political parties that represent 60 percent of voters in the parliament, a number set to rise after the election. However, a lack of enthusiasm for the Jokowi-Ma'ruf ticket is discernable, particularly among educated, middle-class voters, and a movement to sit out the vote has gained steam. While Prabowo is unlikely to win, his candidacy will likely ensure that his political party, Gerindra, will remain the largest opposition party in parliament.

Looking ahead to Indonesia’s 2024 election, one winner will likely be Prabowo’s vice presidential running mate Sandiaga Uno, a telegenic fund manager and former Jakarta deputy governor who has used the spotlight to build his public profile. With Jokowi limited to two terms and Ma’ruf 76 years of age, the 2024 contest will be wide open and Uno, who has injected energy into Prabowo’s candidacy, will be well-positioned for a run at the presidency.

Q3: What’s in store for the next five years?

A3: A Jokowi victory would mean continuity for Indonesia. The economy will continue to be the overriding concern, with Jokowi and his top advisers recognizing that Indonesia currently enjoys a demographic dividend that must be seized lest the country falls into a middle-income trap. As such, a second Jokowi administration would continue to invest in infrastructure but has signaled it will shift its top focus toward human capital development: skills training and education, with the ultimate aim of better jobs. Like in the first term when foreign investment was targeted to deliver on infrastructure, the government will seek foreign investment to build human capital and create jobs. However, rigid labor laws, restrictions on foreign presence in certain sectors, and the implications of the growing role of state-owned enterprises in the economy will continue to hamper investment.

Meanwhile, with Jokowi focused on the economy and based on his track record of weak leadership, creeping challenges, such as declining religious tolerance, the rise of identity politics, corruption, and the military’s role in government, are unlikely to be adequately addressed. Should Prabowo win, economic policy would largely remain unchanged, but his authoritarian instincts would pose major challenges for governance and Indonesia's democratic future.

Q4: What are the implications for Indonesian foreign policy and U.S.-Indonesia relations?

A4: Foreign policy under President Jokowi has been disappointing for those who would like to see Indonesia be an energetic leader within Southeast Asia and a major global player. In a dramatic shrinking of ambition compared to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s approach to foreign policy has been highly transactional and driven by commercial interests. As such, he has prioritized relations with China and Japan in pursuit of investment in infrastructure in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s concept of turning Indonesia into a “Global Maritime Fulcrum,” which was a plank in his 2014 campaign, has seen little recent action. Within this context, relations with the United States have been positive but have not substantially deepened. This general dynamic is unlikely to change during a second term, at least at the presidential level.

Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Brian Harding

Brian Harding

Deputy Director and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program