VICE Votes

Cheat Sheet: All You Need to Know About Indonesia's Elections

VICE explains the good, the bad, and the ugly about the 2019 presidential race.

by VICE Staff
16 April 2019, 11:33am

An official prepares ballot boxes before tomorrow's election. Photo by Willy Kurniawan/ Reuters 

Polls open tomorrow in Indonesia as voters cast their ballots in a presidential election that's been described as staggeringly complicated, incredibly divisive, and utterly disappointing, depending on where your politics lay.

It's an election all of us here at VICE's Indonesia office have been following for months. Just in case you missed it, be sure to check out our stories about why the elections are a boom time for exorcists, what Indonesians are Googling most about the election, and a short documentary about which issues matter most for Millennials and Gen. Z voters.


Watch: VICE Votes: Young Indonesian Voters Speak Up On The 2019 Election


We also dug into Indonesia's fake news industry in a three-part series about hoax factories, social media manipulators, and the shadowy industry that helps shape what's trending, what candidates are talking about, and how you will vote.

But enough about us, here's why today's presidential elections are inspiring, painful, exciting, and sobering all at the same time.

What's so complicated about the election?

In this election, more than 192 million registered voters—roughly eight times the size of neighbouring Australia's entire population—will hit the polls in wildly diverse locations, from modern megacities, like Jakarta and Surabaya, to rural villages, like those in remote Papua, where a lack of roads means that ballots often need to be flown in and some, local traditions include a village-wide vote by tribal consensus.

It's a remarkably difficult undertaking that routinely goes off without any major issues in Indonesia—the world's third-largest democracy—despite the hurdles of distance, infrastructure, and low connectivity. And at a time when more "mature" democracies worldwide are struggling to adapt to the twin threats of a rise in nationalist populism and fake news, Indonesia, which is home to both, remains one of the strongest democracies in Asia.

Who's running?

This year's presidential election is basically a remix of the last one, with the top of the ticket featuring the same two men facing off on pretty similar grounds as the last go-around.

The incumbent candidate is Joko Widodo, a man who won the 2014 race with promises of reform, economic growth, and infrastructure development. Jokowi is touting his track record of building—or planning to build—new roads, railways, and ports in a country where poor infrastructure has long been a hindrance to economic growth.

He's counting on voters to extend his presidency into a second term based on what he's actually accomplished while in office, and illustrating it with slickly produced videos showing off new highways where there were once potholed dirt roads.

"Jokowi knows how to run Indonesia," Viki Hardian, a 26-year-old voter from Bekasi, West Java told VICE. "His programs and goals are clearer now. He has fulfilled his promise about infrastructure, and now it’s time for him to develop human capital and [small businesses]."

His rival is Prabowo Subianto, a former military general fond of pushing a hardline populist and nationalist platform that rails against the "elites" and warns of looming threats, both at home and abroad. Prabowo is campaigning on the idea that a lot of Indonesians feel left behind by Jokowi's economic thrust and want an Indonesia that is more powerful—and present—on the world stage.

He warns that not all foreign investment is equal and has taken particular issue with Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, a stance that, in part, taps into deep-seated fears of communism and anti-Chinese racism. His campaign messaging has focused on promises of increased defence spending, more jobs for the poor, and ominous warnings of a dark future if things continue as they stand today.

"I used to be a die-hard Jokowi supporter," said Rivan Anggara, 26. "But, to be honest, I was disappointed with his performance. So many promises weren't fulfilled. He said he wanted to stop importing food, but it didn't work. So now, I'm choosing Prabowo. I just want to see what it's like to be led by Prabowo. They both have the same vision and mission, so it's not a problem."

So, what's so divisive?

It's more like what isn't? Both candidates entered the race with their own supporters, but in the five years since the last time they faced off, the electoral landscape has undergone a lot of changes. The Jakarta governor's race, which pitted a Jokowi-aligned technocrat against a Prabowo-backed candidate not afraid to shake hands with the country's Islamist front or include anti-Chinese dogwhistles in his speeches, exposed a raw nerve in Indonesia. In the end, Jokowi's former deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, ended up behind bars on blasphemy charges, while Prabowo's man, Anies Baswedan, took the election after a second round.

Prabowo then tagged Anies' own deputy governor, the multi-millionaire Sandiaga Uno, as his running mate. He's running a campaign steeped in nationalism, but his staunchest supporters are singing a different tune altogether. Prabowo's big campaign rally at Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno was a sea of white—a color associated with religious events—that included a real Islamic bent. It was a dramatic departure from the militaristic pomp of his last appearance at GBK, which opened with Prabowo riding in on a horse before supporters stationed in rigid lines.

Jokowi, cognizant of Indonesia's shifting sands, chose a respected Islamic scholar, Ma'ruf Amin, as his running mate—a calculated move that was safe but also incredibly alienating to his more progressive-minded supporters (more on this later).

Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani, told VICE that Jokowi was mindful of the fact that religious tensions were taking center stage after the 2017 Jakarta governor's race, and that he needed a VP candidate who could shut down claims that he "wasn't Muslim enough."

"In 2017, you could feel the tension, every single possible conversation on the street trying to bring down Ahok and Joko Widodo at the same time," Yohanes said. "But now, after Joko Widodo managed to split Nahdlatul Ulama from the rest of the Islamist groups, at this point well, basically it’s less of a problem, but it’s still a problem. It’s less intense because Jokowi basically can say 'hey, if you say I’m anti-Muslim, how can I choose Ma’ruf Amin?'"

A recent poll by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI) found that 3.5 percent of Indonesian voters wanted to live in a country that was "more like the Middle East," a statement that presumably referenced Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates more than it did Iraq.

Now, although 3.5 percent is a small number, nationwide, an even larger number of people are calling for Islam to take a more central role in politics. Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim, and it's never had a non-Muslim president, but moves by Jokowi to crack down on Islamist ormas, a term that means "mass organizations," has some accusing him of "criminalizing ulema (Muslim clerics)."

"If he wins, I hope Prabowo can stop the criminalization of the ulema, because the regime right now is discriminatory and it frequently corners Islam," said Henti Putri, a Prabowo supporter. "Jokowi has not promised to stop criminalizing the ulema."

But with both candidates focusing on courting the Muslim vote, it can leave Indonesia's religious minorities and progressive voters feeling a bit ignored. Which brings us to our final question:

Many won't vote. Why?

A lot of it has to do with progressive voters' dissatisfaction over Jokowi's VP choice. Ma'ruf, an elderly preacher who was a chair in the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), has a concerning track record of supporting fatwas against the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, and in support of female genital mutilation for Muslim women.

In the 2014 election, Jokowi talked a good game about supporting human rights, but during his first term, at-risk groups, like queer Indonesians, religious minorities, and critics of the military, have increasingly come under attack.

Jokowi, it turns out, wasn't the staunch supporter of human rights that some of his original backers thought he was. But, according to Yohanes, that's probably because he never was.

"Jokowi has shown himself as not utterly concerned about human rights," he told VICE. "He doesn’t really care about minority religious rights. He doesn’t really care about the LBGT [community]. When Jokowi was first running in 2014, you could make the argument that he was undefined enough, that he could basically be anything people wanted him to be.

"People looked at Joko Widodo as a contrast to this authoritarian [figure], this Suharto-like Prabowo. So they basically said, 'hey Joko Widodo is our human rights champion.' We wanted him to be this human rights warrior, but the problem is he’s not."

Still, the disappointment in this was enough to make some of Jokowi's previous supporters step back and say they were going to abstain from voting entirely (a protest practice called "golput") in this election.

"Their reasons vary, from the LGBT community, who don’t see any hope from both candidates, to minority groups, think they are dangerous," explained Sinte Galeshka, who chose golput in this election. "There are also people like me who will never cast my vote if legislative candidates still put their banners on trees. We have our own reasons, and we must tell it to the public. Abstention is the only parameter here. It’s a tool to show that we still have problematic system."

Some polls estimate that golput could be as high a 30 percent in this election, which is being described as a sign that neither candidate has shown a vision that connects with young voters. Others, like Sinte, are saying that this race exposed what's wrong with Indonesia's democratic system—which has quickly boiled down to a two-horse race where both candidates are reliant on a broad coalition with sometimes opposing viewpoints to run.

But even at 30 percent abstaining or choosing golput (the act of showing up to vote, but marking the white space, or no one, on their ballot), it's still in line with historical turnouts. In 2009, around 70 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. In 2014, that number was slightly higher, at around 75 percent, but even then, 25 percent of the electorate was absent.

Who will win?

Today, Jokowi is ahead in the polls by as much as a double-digit lead, according to some pollsters. But elections have confounded pollsters before, and it would be a mistake to count Prabowo out, explained Yohanes.

"It depends on how many people are going golput," he told VICE. "To be honest I think the polls underestimate the votes for Prabowo in high-density areas. They underestimate the Islamists’ support in those regions. Because, by virtue of sampling, you cannot oversample in one area right?"

"As a result, you end up under-sampling," he added. "Polls have problems, like you said, Trump won. What could make Joko Widodo lose the election is if there are too many people not voting at all. I think Prabowo’s numbers are [actually] a little bit higher. I would say that maybe the numbers that we see now are his lowest possible numbers."