Indonesia elections

What This Week's Elections Tell Us About Indonesia's Future

Experts are trying to predict next year's horse race.
June 29, 2018, 10:00am
Jokowi and Prabowo on horses
Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto rode horses at Subianto's Bogor home in October 31, 2016. Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari/via REUTERS 

There's still a lot we don't know about this week's regional elections. The official final counts aren't in yet, for example. And in Papua, the election isn't even over. But one thing we do definitely know is that these local elections are going to have a big impact on next year's national race.

Regional elections have always been seen as the pregame for the following presidential election, and they usually paint an accurate picture of the state of this country and where it’s heading next. Political parties with candidates winning seats in regional elections are more likely to secure the 2019 race, explained Muradi, a political expert from Padjajaran University.

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“If a political party wins at least North Sumatra, South Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, East Java, Bali, and South Sulawesi, it’s easier for their candidate to win the presidential election next year,” he said.

In 1999, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won West Java in the regional election before eventually winning 153 seats out of 462 in the legislative election later that year (though its presidential candidate and chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri lost to Abdurrahman Wahid and became his vice president instead).

You can see a trend here by looking at West Java alone. In 2004, Golkar won big. In 2009, it was the Democrats turn and in 2014 it was all about PDI-P. Each time, the party that won West Java later won the presidential race (or at least the candidate they supported as part of a coalition won).

West Java’s large population is obviously a big factor here. There are 31.7 million voters in West Java alone. Add in East Java’s 30.1 million and Central Java’s 27 million and you get 48 percent of all voters nationwide. It just goes to show you how important Java actually is.

But to win the hearts of voters in West Java is no easy feat, and this year's election was all about one thing above all lse—relate-ability, said Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a political expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

Indonesian voters want to see a bit of themselves in their leaders. In a province as wide in West Java, that can be harder than you might think. Voters in places like Bandung are sophisticated and urban. Those in places like West Preanger and Cirebon are less technologically included or politically literate. And in the suburbs of Jakarta, they're more affected by the politics of the capital.

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So successful candidates have to somehow be relatable to voters in some pretty disparate places, while also appealing to the masses at the same time.

Political observers, news show experts, and journalists all like to focus on the parties behind the candidates because it's interesting to see local races in the context of national political maneuverings. But a lot of voters really care a lot more about a candidate's personality, Wasisto said.

Take Ridwan Kamil. The Bandung mayor won 32.57 percent of the West Java vote in the governor's race, according to quick count results. He's Sundanese and a religious Muslim who’s portrayed as energetic, cool, and young in the media. He’s social media savvy and his Instagram feed features memes about Selena Gomez. Sure, his feed also includes personal videos from celebrities like Syahrini, but star power aside, he might as well be anyone else in West Java.

“Personalities are very important this year," Wasisto said, "because it will show their ability to lead."

And it's not enough to just be known. You need to be known locally as well. Take a look at the North Sumatra gubernatorial race. Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the former governor of Jakarta, had a name on the national stage. But he never spent much time in North Sumatra, and that cost him the election. His rival, Edy Rahmayadi, was born in Sumatra and was well-known in the province, a fact that helped him net 58.81 percent of the vote.

Once a candidate wins a regional election, it's far easier for presidential candidates to use their local familiarity with the electorate to connect to voters nationwide. Basically, if a presidential candidate can't really connect with voters in, say, the Toba region of North Sumatra because their not Batak, Christian, or even from the region, the local elected official who like is can act as a conduit for the voters. And that's why these elections can have such a big impact on next year's national race.

“Voters will choose a candidate who has connection with them,” Wasisto said. “So there is a big possibility that voters who voted for Ridwan Kamil will vote for Jokowi in next year’s presidential election. Or that those who voted for Sudirman Said in Central Java will vote for Prabowo."