Tepid start to Indonesian election end-game

Voters don’t appear to be too excited about the choices: incumbent President Joko Widodo or former general Prabowo Subianto
Tepid start to Indonesian election end-game

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (right), who is running for a second term, hugs presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on Sept. 23, 2018. (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP)

With three months to go to Indonesia's elections, the temperature is starting to warm up. But while streets across the nation are lined with posters for legislative candidates in the April 17 poll, there's little noise on the street about the presidential contest. There's much more fuss on social media about the latest scandal involving a starlet discovered selling her favors.

With the exception of the avid supporters of the two opposing candidates, voters don't appear to be too excited about the choice before them: incumbent President Joko Widodo, teamed up with cleric Ma'ruf Main, and former general Prabowo Subianto and his businessman running mate Sandiaga Uno.

Excited or not, they still value the right to be able to choose their leaders, so it was not surprising that 'news' of the discovery of seven containers containing pre-marked ballot papers at Jakarta's port of Tanjung Priok spread widely.

All had been marked in favor of the Widodo/Amin pair and, in an additional touch apparently aimed at the incumbent, the containers were reported to have been shipped from China, raising suspicions that the communist giant wanted a second term for Widodo, presumably so it can force him to take on more debt for projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

What threatened to become a major issue fizzled when authorities denied the existence of any such containers, adding that ballot papers hadn't even been printed yet. It was just the latest ploy to convince the public that one side or the other was cheating.

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It is very clear that a significant amount of cheating is going on. Most of it is minor in nature: civil servants, who aren't supposed to take sides publicly, flashing one or two finger signs to signify the Widodo/Amin pair, No. 1 on the ballot paper, or two fingers for Subianto and Uno.

Electoral authorities are trying hard to turn a blind eye to minor infractions, declaring for instance that the civil servants weren't on duty at the time they made their preference clear to their own supporters.

Issues such as the container loads of ballot papers and other significant hoaxes have now convinced the authorities they need to get more serious. They've created a task force to deal with the problem. It will involve cooperation between the Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu), the General Election Commission (KPU), the National Police's cyber-crime unit, the Communication and Information Ministry and the National Cyber and Encryption Agency (BSSN).

The unknown factor with hoax news, in Indonesia as elsewhere, is how much weight statements dismissing them as nonsense carry with the general public, and how many only see the original hoax and believe it. Many elements of the electorate are less than sophisticated and, accustomed to the sensationalism of the Indonesian media, tend to believe the worst in any situation.

Once having swallowed the fake news, the capacity to accept that it is a hoax depends on them chancing on a credible denial. Not everyone spends every minute of the day glued to their source of news and may miss a new development.

Nor does the mud-slinging appear to be making much difference. In the most recent poll of any credibility, Widodo and Amin remained around 20 points ahead of Subianto and Uno, where the competing pairs have been stuck for months.

Pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia (IPI) said on Jan. 8 that the poll, which involved 1,220 randomly selected respondents with a 2.9 percent margin of error, saw Widodo-Amin ahead with the backing of 54.9 percent of respondents, while Subianto-Uno were supported by 34.8 percent.

Those who hadn't made up their minds took 9.2 percent, while a mere 1.1 percent said they wouldn't cast a vote. That last figure is likely to swell, with many younger voters in particular saying they are bored with the process of politics. The survey also found that hoaxes and rumors spread on the internet don't make much difference to candidate appeal.

Up until now policies have been sparse on the ground, but on Jan. 12 Subianto and Uno rolled out a package of economic promises in which they promised to slash taxes. It's not clear what impact that will have, given that the vast majority of voters don't pay tax. 

Widodo has been touring the country, apparently reminding voters in the regions of how much he's done for them by building infrastructure. Despite the presence of Amin on his team, he's seen as running behind in staunchly Muslim provinces like Aceh, Banten and West Sumatra.

Amin may not have helped that situation by coming out and saying he personally regretted speaking out in court against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was jailed for two years on questionable blasphemy charges. Purnama, for long associated with Widodo, is due out of jail in February. The president may be hoping that his former ally will stay as far out of the media spotlight as possible.  

Amid all the hoaxes and attempts to stir up sentiment, many Indonesians are seriously considering the merits of choosing their next president. At 18, Nina is one of the newcomers to the electorate. Despite leaving school after primary school, she believes Widodo needs another five years to keep working on what she sees is a rapidly developing Indonesia.

Many agree: the benefits of incumbency mean many see it wiser to stick with the candidate you know rather than risk it all for an unknown quantity. 

Subianto spelled out one line he said shouldn't be crossed in a one-and-a-half-hour speech on Jan. 14: the country's minorities had to be respected, along with the basic ideology of the republic, Pancasila, which guarantees a secular republic.

The crowd, which had roared approval for his earlier attacks on what he said was the inequity of the country and his promises that Muslim religious leaders would never be criminalized, appeared less supportive of his insistence that he was going to stand up for secular Indonesia, and not be dragged into supporting the hard-line Islamists who up to now have been his main cheerleaders. 

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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