Indonesia elections

Why Tomorrow's Regional Elections Matter, Even If Your Province Isn't Holding an Election

It's election day in the world's third-largest democracy.
Photo by  Izaac Mulyawan/Antara Foto via Reuters

Indonesian voters head to the polls tomorrow to vote in one of the world's biggest democratic elections with ballots being cast in more than 170 regional races that could dramatically shift the country's political landscape ahead of what is already shaping up to be a heated presidential race next year.

There are more than 156 million registered voters in Indonesia, and with high rates of voter turnout and hotly contested elections in places like West Java—the most-populated province in the nation—pollsters are saying that several key races are still too close to call.

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Observers are reporting tight races in North Sumatra, East Java, West Java, and South Sulawesi the day before we head into the polls. All are sizable provinces that, together, represent some 41 percent of Indonesia's total population.

In West Java, the mayor of the city of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, is facing down the current deputy governor Deddy Mizwar and two others in a four-way race that most credible pollsters are calling for Ridwan. But with Indo Barometer reporting only a narrow margin of 6 percent, the outcome of tomorrow's election is still far from certain.

Indonesia's political system is heavily decentralized, placing an outsized level of power in the hands of local elected officials, and with a presidential election on the horizon, the outcomes of tomorrow's regional elections in places like West Java could have serious impacts on the 2019 presidential race.

"Securing this governor's position is so important," explained Ari Ganjar, a political expert at Bandung's Universitas Padjadjaran. "West Java has about 17 percent of all national voters. West Java elections have aways gotten national exposure, especially for the winning pair, and the 'human resources' factor means that the pair who wins is certainly going to mobilize the resources they gained to direct support in the 2019 presidential election."

Next year, incumbent President Joko Widodo will (most likely) face-off once again against rival Prabowo Subianto, the former head of the Indonesian Military's (TNI) Kopassus special forces and chair of his own political party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).

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Jokowi was able to secure 53 percent of the vote the last time he mounted a campaign against Prabowo—back in 2014—but the country's electoral landscape looks far more unpredictable this year. Gerindra scored a big win in last year's Jakarta election where its candidates were able to unseat the once-popular incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in a race that quickly fell along racial and sectarian lines.

Gerindra, which often casts itself in shades of nationalism, has made serious inroads with the country's hardline Islamists in recent years. Prabowo himself met with members of the hardline Islamist Defenders Front (FPI) in celebration of Anies Baswedan's win in the Jakarta gubernatorial race and he has again recently met with FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab during a visit to Saudi Arabia, where Rizieq has been living in self-imposed exile to avoid the now-dropped warrants issued for his arrest for more than a year.

Now, with Prabowo once again declaring himself as the only man who can save Indonesia from a long list of threats, some of them imagined, and sizable parties like the Democratic Party still keeping their distance from Jokowi's ruling coalition, the country's political make up after tomorrow's regional elections, and party allegiances, is still up in the air.

"This is very difficult to predict," Ari explained. "It's like what happened last year with the Jakarta election where the political constellation suddenly changed. The Democrats, for example, seem to be a little bit 'distant' with the PDI-P because the Democrats are starting to pay attention to its base.

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"It's like we saw in the Jakarta election where most of the [Democrat] voters didn't vote for [the PDI-P candidates] Ahok-Djarot at the time. I think if the pattern is the same here in as in the gubernatorial elections, there is a possibility that the Democrats will have an alternative presidential candidate to support. Or maybe they will form their own coalition, but that's unlikely."

In other elections, entrenched political leaders are facing a possible upset and once prominent elected officials are fighting for a second chance. In South Sulawesi, a four-way race between the next generation of a large political dynasty, the current deputy governor, an anti-corruption activist, and a politician dogged by corruption allegations of his own has quickly become one of the country's must-watch races.

Ichsan Yasin Limpo, the younger brother of the outgoing Governor Syahrul Yasin Limpo, is fighting to retain control of South Sulawesi, a province his family has controlled a half-dozen local and national seats for much of the last decade. But the scandal-plagued family is now facing serious competition in the race and, according to polls by CSIS and SSI, is trailing in third place.

Still, Ichsan might have a shot at the governor's seat, said Sirojudin Abbas, the director Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting.

"The problems with political dynasties only occur among the elite at the national level," Sirojudin said. "In a regional level, they don't really care about dynasties. And political dynasties don't always mean something negative. Maybe we had experienced some corrupt dynasties, like Atut in Banten or Limpo in South Sulawesi, but it's not seen as an important factor when determining someone's electability."

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That hasn't stopped Nurdin Abdullah, an anti-corruption campaigner with a track record of turning around the fortunes of an economically depressed district, from leading some polls, while another man named Nurdin, one who might be his polar opposite, is leading the race in others.

Nurdin Halid, a politician named in multiple corruption scandals dating back to the late 90s, previously served a prison sentence in 2005 over his involvement in a crooked rice import scheme. The former head of the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) was banned by FIFA from ever running for the position again in light of his corruption conviction, but, despite efforts to ban convicts from holding elected office in Indonesia, officials found guilty of corruption are still allowed to campaign once again upon their release.

In North Sumatra, former Jakarta Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat is campaigning for the governor's seat of Indonesia's fourth-largest province. Djarot, who served as deputy governor to Ahok and then replaced him once he was jailed on blasphemy charges, is banking heavily on support for the PDI-P and name recognition stemming from his time guiding the capital through a corruption free, but still divisive, term as both the deputy and the head of City Hall.

It's being floated as a second-chance for a man who lost control of the capital in last year's election, but Djarot continues to trial behind his rival Edy Rahmayadi, a military man running with the backing of Prabowo's Gerindra party and two prominent Islamic parties.

"Most people in North Sumatra live in rural areas, which weren’t really following the political issues in Jakarta, so people don't really care about Djarot’s programs," Sirojudin said. "Things that interested them most are things that are local, that’s why Edy has high electability. It's because North Sumatra people have known him for a long time since his tenure as military commander."

To see how all these races turned out, and learn what it all means for next year's presidential race, check back tomorrow as our reporters file stories from across Indonesia.