Executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Approximately 150 million Indonesians cast their votes on Wednesday in the regional elections. These simultaneous elections are very important in a number of ways.
First, such a large number is only about 20 million short of the number of people eligible to vote in the presidential and legislative elections in 2019. If anything, one can actually expect voter preferences in the 2018 regional elections to be more or less carried over to next year’s presidential election.
Second, out of the 171 regions holding local elections, five are in the largest provinces: North Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, East Java and South Sulawesi. These provinces have nearly 54 percent of the 575 House of Representatives seats up for grabs in the 2019 legislative election. For political parties and would-be presidential candidates, these provinces are just too important to ignore.
Third, the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election will haunt the country for some years to come. Some expressed concern that the aforementioned election, during which religious and ethnic sentiment against the incumbent governor was exploited on an unprecedented level, would be replicated by candidates to win the 2018 regional elections.
Let us not forget the context of the 2018 elections: All eyes are on the 2019 presidential election. With this in mind, as I wrote in The Jakarta Post before, the pressure is more on the incumbent party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). The 2018 regional elections should serve as a benchmark for the party in its preparation for the 2019 elections.
As a reminder, the spectacular win of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the 2014 presidential election followed a remarkable performance by the PDI-P in regional elections in 2012 and 2013, including Jokowi’s success in the 2012 Jakarta election. The PDI-P had been out of power from 2004 to 2014, so their performance in these regional elections before the 2014 presidential election had definitely boosted the confidence of its members and party machinery as well as the public mood for change.
In 2012, PDI-P-nominated pair Rieke Diah Pitaloka and Teten Masduki were outsiders in the West Java gubernatorial election, but somehow they came out strong and finished second with a margin of only 4 percent behind the winner. In 2013, the same was true for North Sumatra, with the underdog Effendi Simbolon of the PDI-P narrowly losing to the eventual winner. Also in 2013, PDI-P candidate Ganjar Pranowo won the Central Java gubernatorial election. Such feats made it seem inevitable that Jokowi and the PDI-P would win the presidential and legislative elections the following year.
Fast forward to 2018, the PDI-P seems to have a lot to fix. Last year, it lost the important Jakarta election, which will have some impact on President Jokowi in 2019. The defeat of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was seen as the closest ally of Jokowi, certainly boosted the morale of the opposition. At least they would feel that although the PDI-P won the legislative election in Jakarta in 2014, the party and/or President Jokowi could be defeated. That sense of growing confidence among the opposition is important for them as it was for the PDI-P and Jokowi prior to the 2014 election.
However, the pertinent question will be how much of this will affect President Jokowi’s chance in 2019. PDI-P-backed candidates lost in North Sumatra, West Java and East Java, but won in Central Java and South Sulawesi based on credible quick counts on election day.
While there is a risk of over generalization, a number of observations can be made. First, it is true that PDI-P-backed candidates lost, but it does not necessarily mean that it is also a defeat for Jokowi. In East Java, while PDI-P-backed candidate Saifulah Yusuf lost, winning candidate Khofifah Indar Parawansa is known as close to President Jokowi as she used to serve in his cabinet. Moreover, the two candidates are in fact members of Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic organization in the country, which has an ideological leaning more in line with Jokowi’s than that of the opposition group, which seems to favor a more conservative view of Islam.
Second, the case of South Sulawesi is more interesting. The victory of PDI-P-backed candidate Nurdin Abdullah may mark a new era of politics and governance in a province that has long been heavily controlled by dynastic and familial politics. Nurdin is a technocrat, serving as a successful Bantaeng regent. He is an example of a new generation of local leaders who are committed to good public service delivery, anticorruption and transparency.
This is similar to Jokowi’s path to presidency, starting as mayor of Solo, then Jakarta governor. Jokowi and Nurdin are among the fruits of the decentralization program that started in 1999.
Third, the mediocre performance of the PDI-P-backed candidate in West Java should remind the party leaders of the need to be flexible in forging a coalition. It was a late decision after a long back-and-forth with other potentials candidates, including with the eventual winner Ridwan Kamil. While the nationalist narrative that PDI-P candidate pair Tubagus Hasanudin and Anton Charliyan promoted during the campaign is admirable, the PDI-P and others in the nationalist camp should find the right balance between being nationalist and being more sensitive to Islamic voters.
They seem to forget that party founder Sukarno was very sensitive to the Islamic elites that he decided not to confront but rather engage through his intellect, persuasion and narrative to win their hearts and minds, as well as those of the masses.
The PDI-P, and the country, is in dire need of such a figure, who could solve the question of the relationship between religion and the state in a persuasive way. Sukarno did his part in the early days of the Republic, now it is the PDI-P’s turn.
The writer is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.