Tension & Rivalry Continue to Dominate Upcoming Indonesian Election

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

This upcoming Wednesday, April 17th, will mark a new day for Indonesian democracy, as the country will be holding general elections to choose a new president and vice president. Indonesia elected its president through the members of the House of Parliament until in 2002, when the People’s Consultative Assembly enacted amendments for direct election of the president by the people. The first such election was held in 2004, and they have been conducted every five years ever since.

However, this cycle is different, as, for the first time, elections for legislative positions will also be held simultaneously. 136 members of the national Regions House (DPD), 575 members of the House of Representatives (DPR), 2,207 provincial-level MPs from the 34 provinces, and 17,610 local councilors across more than 500 local authorities will also be elected. With a total of 192.8 million voters eligible to vote in the 809,500 polling stations scattered across the world’s biggest archipelago country, the upcoming Indonesian elections could be among the largest in the world. Following a simple majority system, a presidential ticket must have over half of the popular vote to win the election. However, unlike the legislative elections, the presidential election is very much following established trends.

This contest will be a rematch from the 2014 election, as the incumbent President Joko Widodo (popularly referred as Jokowi) will once again face Lt. Gen (ret) Prabowo Subianto, who managed to win 46.85 percent of the total votes in that year.

The political rivalry between these two figures reflects how religious issues have always heavily influenced politics in Indonesia. Considering there are currently no parties with more than 20% of the seats in the current Parliament, candidate teams (a president runs with a vice president on the same ticket) must form coalitions, which often attempt to cater to as many people as possible in the multi-ethnic country. In order to qualify, a candidate must have at least 20 percent of the seats in the DPR, or 25 percent of total votes in the last election.

Furthermore, as the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world, reaching out to this prominent section of the population has been a key component of campaign strategies. Unfortunately, this gives way to a politicization of religion, and, as a result, the 2014 election campaign proved to be an incredibly bitter, aggressive, and polarized fight between hard-liner supporters of the two candidates, a tension which has continued to dominate elections to this day.

A dramatic 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election reflects a conservative shift in Indonesian society, and the importance of religion in the political realm. The issue began when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), Jokowi’s successor as governor of Jakarta and close confidant, was charged with blasphemy and accused of insulting Islam during the course his campaign. A series of massive demonstration following this controversy concerned the established order in Indonesia, as it bore a striking resemblance to the widespread riots in 1998, when President Soeharto was overthrown and forced to resign after three-decade of his authoritarian “New Order” regime. Ahok eventually lost his campaign for governor, and was imprisoned for two years for blasphemy.

The sentiment toward Ahok is not solely based on his blundering comments, but has been long harbored because of his status as a double minority: he is Christian of Chinese descendant. The Chinese population has been the target of racial discrimination in Indonesia on account of social inequality, in which the Sino-Indonesian community dominates Indonesia’s private sector and is seen considerably wealthier than the “native” population. These religious and ethnic issues have also heavily influenced the current presidential campaign. In fact, these issues have been ongoing since the 2014 election. Rumors about President Jokowi as a communist, being of Chinese descendant, and a non-Muslim or not a good Muslim are still thrown around, accompanying accusations of failure and unfulfilled promises during his current term. His choice of vice president then, although surprising, is also understandable, as he needs to attract more Muslim voters to his side. KH Ma’ruf Amin, a senior chairman of Indonesian Muslim Leaders Council (MUI) and former Supreme Leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization) is currently running for vice president alongside Jokowi.

On the other hand, the running mate choice of his contender, Prabowo, who has strong support from more conservative Muslims, is also surprising. Prabowo chose Sandiaga Uno, a young businessman who is among the nation’s wealthiest and is suddenly being dubbed as a post-Islamist, progressive santri (follower or student of Islam). Being active in many Islamic groups, including the progressive Paramadina Foundation, Uno could reach the more urban Muslim middle class and millennials, the latter of which comprise of 40 percent of eligible voters, many of who will be voting for the first time.

With the large percentage of young voters and as one of the largest digital markets, Indonesian campaigns have also moved into the world of social media, and, in actuality, this is where the fiercest battles are being fought. Armies of the so-called “buzzers” are paid to promote certain hashtags or topics to start trends on various social media platforms. A popular social media campaign is #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangePresident), an effort to express people’s disapproval towards Jokowi’s presidency and urge others to replace him in 2019 election. Rumors and hoaxes could also spread through WhatsApp, which is why, in early 2019, WhatsApp decided to limit the ability of users to forward messages in an attempt to tackle the spread of misinformation.


The long and draining campaign battle has created a third group of eligible voters who are fed up with all the political circus, and will choose not to vote for either candidate. Their worries and exhaustion are well deserved because, even after this election, it is impossible to predict whether the five-year struggle between Jokowi and Prabowo will finally cease or continue to define coming election cycles in Indonesia.

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Hidayati Dwi Kusuma Pratiwi is a second-year MPP student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy from Indonesia, having been awarded a scholarship by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD) under Helmut-Schmidt-Programme. Her specialization areas are International Affairs and Public & Non-Profit Management. After receiving her Bachelor degree in International Relations at Airlangga University, she worked at the International Cooperation Division of a local government. Her areas of interest include issues around children, women, development studies, migration, and people with disability.