Indonesia’s 2019 Election: A Primer

On Wednesday, Indonesians will head to the polls to elect their next president. Around 192 million people are eligible to vote in the world's third largest democracy. We asked Straits Times Jakarta bureau chief Francis Chan for the lowdown on what it all means.

Here's what you need to know:


1. Who is Joko Widodo?

Joko Widodo ("Jokowi') has been president of Indonesia since 2014. He's a carpenter who went from furniture businessman to president in 10 years, and on Wednesday he'll seek reelection to a second 5-year term.

2. What has he accomplished as president and what has he failed to accomplish?

Indonesia is now better-connected because of Jokowi's ambitious infrastructure push. He's delivered on several welfare programs for the people.

But while the country recorded a steady 5 percent growth annually since he was elected, that fell short of his 7 percent campaign promise.

More was also expected of him in tackling corruption, poverty and human rights abuses.

3. For readers outside Asia who know little about Indonesia's domestic politics, tell us why this election is important?

It's the world's third-largest democracy (behind the US and India) and has the largest Muslim population in the world. Each time Indonesia holds an election, it's a chance for the country to prove that Islam and multiparty democracy are compatible—or that they're not.

4. What are the most important issues in this election?

A rising cost of living, opportunities for young people, and religion. Youth unemployment has topped 19 percent in recent years, compared to 5 percent for the population as a whole.

There's a growing divide between conservative Muslims who'd like to see religion play a more prominent role in national political life and moderate Muslims and Christians.

5. How do politicians build a national reputation in a country of 260 million people spread across more than 17,000 islands that includes more than 300 ethnic groups speaking more than 700 regional languages?

Social media plays a big role, especially given Indonesia's high Internet penetration rates and Indonesians' active use of social media platforms.

6. There's a perception that Islamic fundamentalism has become a more potent force in Indonesian politics. Is this true, and how is it changing the political landscape?

Muslims make up 90 percent of Indonesia's 260 million people, so religious fervor will naturally be a part of any political contest. But these elections come amid rising religious polarization across the country, ignited just before the fall of Jakarta's Chinese-Christian governor in 2017.

7. Why has "fake news" become such an important problem in Indonesia?

Fake news is a problem everywhere, but probably more so in Indonesia because social media has emerged as an important campaigning tool. Social media is made even more important by the fact that Indonesia is such a geographically dispersed country, spanning over 3,700 miles from East to West.

*This interview was conducted with Straits Times Jakarta bureau chief Francis Chan. The answers were edited and condensed for clarity.

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How close is the United States to war with Iran?

Well who knew that the adult in the room on military action would turn out to be none other than President Trump. His advisers pushing him towards military confrontation. He doesn't want to do it. Still more likely than it has been. Certainly, the potential for escalation leading to accident and military confrontation is greater than we'd like.

What's the biggest thing to watch for at the G20 this week?

It's a big one. It's the big U.S. - China conversation about trade, about North Korea, about Huawei and 5G. It's U.S. and Russia. It's U.S. and Turkey. So many issues where the bilateral relations are more confrontational than they have been historically. And things could get dicey. Big one to watch.

Will Erdogan back down after his party lost the Istanbul mayor's race?

Oh I don't think Mr. Erdogan is going to back down. But he lost big. Almost a million votes which means he wasn't able to actually control the outcome. Doesn't mean he's not going to try to undermine the power of the mayor of Istanbul. But the big thing here is that a lot of people that used to support Erdogan, some of his major members of cabinet and the rest of them, are now going to start their own parties to challenge his AK Party. This is a tipping point in Erdogan's leadership for Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amassed much power in recent years, but on Sunday he showed some real political superpower alchemy: he turned a narrow defeat into a blowout loss.

Back in March, his preferred candidate, Binali Yildirim of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), lost the Istanbul mayoral election to opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu by just 13,000 votes in a city of 15 million people. After forcing through a (highly controversial) rerun of the vote, Erdogan watched his man lose again last Sunday—this time by 800,000 votes – a nine percentage point spread in the final tally.

To lose control of the symbolic and economic capital of Turkey, a city where Erdogan himself once served as mayor, is a heavy political blow for him personally and for his party. He had campaigned vigorously for Yildirim. Imamoglu, meanwhile, styled himself as an alternative to Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian, divisive, and economically ham-fisted politics. The final vote was at least in part a referendum on the president himself.

As the dust settles, there are a few points to consider:

A loss like this puts blood in the water around Erdogan, who has dominated his country's politics for the past 16 years. Opponents both within and outside the AKP will feel emboldened to challenge him more directly on a host of issues, including his handling of the economy and foreign policy. New opposition parties led by former Erdogan allies may now spring up.

You can bet Erdogan will make life hard for Imamoglu. Yildirim and Erdogan both accepted the outcome – with a margin like that how could they not? But Erdogan will want to keep Imamoglu from being too effective as mayor, lest that provide a platform for a national-level challenge. At the same time, Erdogan will have to tread carefully to avoid provoking protests from a city that has very clearly turned against him.

Turkish democracy is more resilient than it's sometimes made out to be. Yes, Erdogan has in recent years pushed his country in a more authoritarian direction – by clamping down on the courts and the media, and purging the bureaucracy of perceived political opponents. But as Imamoglu's win shows (twice!) -- Turkish party politics and elections remain plenty competitive and unpredictable.

The big question: As Erdogan looks towards 2023, the scheduled date for the next national elections (barring a coalition collapse that leads to an earlier ballot) will he moderate his politics at all in order to bounce back from the Istanbul loss? Or will the famously pugnacious president double down on his approach, reasoning that any concessions would simply encourage more challengers? A thwarted would-be autocrat is a dangerous thing.

What was the most interesting thing to come out of the South Carolina Democratic Convention?

Well I think it was that they all kind of got along after a few days of sniping over Joe Biden's comments about segregationist senators. It was mostly all collegiality. I don't think that's going to last into the debates this week Wednesday and Thursday in Miami expect them to go after each other.

Is Mayor Pete naïve on race?

I don't know if he's naive but he certainly has a problem with African-American support. You can't win the Democratic nomination without it. He's got some problems with police and race relations in South Bend. He's really got to do some work here.

Will President Trump carry out ICE raids?

I think he will carry out immigration deportation raids. I don't see a big deal happening with Democrats but not on the scale that he's promised because that's not possible.

The Rant

Finally for The Rant: my rant is on President Trump saying again this weekend that he inherited the family separation policy from Obama.

This is a lie. There were very limited family separations under Obama. The huge crisis at the border and with these detention camps comes from the president's zero tolerance policy. It is all a result of Trump policy.

If the state of California were an independent country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world, according to a fascinating report by The Economist that looks at both that state and Texas as the harbingers of two alternative futures for the United States. That got us thinking – how do the economies of the individual US states stack up against other countries? California's economy is about the size of the United Kingdom's, while Texas's matches up with Canada's. Who's on par with Sri Lanka or the Czech Republic? Our map's got 'em all.