Indonesia: Hope for Change

On Wednesday, Indonesia went to the polls to elect its seventh president. Unofficial results predict a narrow 5% win for Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, over rival Prabowo Subianto. The election marks the end of a 10-year term for outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Indonesia’s first hand-off from one elected leader to another.

The election has been more about the differences in personality than policy, and has been notable for the stark differences in style between the two candidates. In spite of this, both have positioned themselves similarly in the campaign—as anticorruption and pro-growth but have taken varying stances in support of nationalist economic policy and subsidy reforms. However, both have been scant on details. So, what does a Jokowi victory represent for the world’s third largest democracy? 

First, it demonstrates that many Indonesians value track record over rhetoric. As the first elected mayor of a mid-sized city in Indonesia, Jokowi’s practical reforms addressed the needs of common citizens and led to a second term with an overwhelming 90% majority. His reputation for delivering on promises bolstered his leadership as Jakarta’s popular mayor. Prabowo, on the other hand, has never served public office and ran a campaign positioning himself as a decisive, self-styled strongman, emphasizing his military background. 

Widely considered a man of the people, Jokowi came from humble beginnings as a furniture salesman. His hands-on approach to dealing with issues and transparent campaign financing cemented his image as a corruption-battling incumbent. By contrast, Prabowo holds close ties to Suharto, Indonesia’s second president, who held authoritarian rule for 32 years until he was driven from office in 1998. Prabowo is Suharto’s former son-in-law and was a general in the special-forces, a group infamous for human rights violations in East Timor.

Most importantly, Jokowi's meteoric rise to power underscores the continuation of a key driver of economic development over the past decade—a radical push toward decentralization in the period following the autocratic Suharto-led regime. There is some cause for optimism here as Jokowi plans to end the ruinous fuel subsidies borne by the country. He instead plans on boosting much-needed investment in infrastructure. Prabowo, on the other hand has been less balanced in suggesting a reduction of subsidies while paradoxically laying out an ambitious infrastructure spending plan. This may have been vote-garnering rhetoric, however, given that Indonesia’s current fiscal situation virtually necessitates the elimination of subsidies.

To be sure, there are valid concerns going forward. Jokowi lacks political experience on the national, let alone international, stage. And his narrow victory provides him with a weak majority. During my recent visit to the country—in the weeks leading up to the elections—news articles suggested that if the elections were scheduled for a month later, Prabowo's slick, media-based campaign may have helped clinch a victory. Even now, there is some small possibility of a dispute over the results and perhaps a protracted legal battle. Given that 63% of Indonesia’s Parliament is controlled by rival parties who supported Prabowo in these elections; Jokowi may have to compromise on reforms. This could disappoint expectations in the medium term. As one senior bank official put it, “Jokowi is an empty vessel that everyone fills with their hopes.” This election has taken place against the backdrop of a country grappling with structural issues—GDP growth has slowed to 5.7% and the deficit has widened. With half the population of 240 million people under the age of 30, one hopes that a Jokowi win can at least lead to a more meritocratic socio-economic society rather than one based on connections. 

Siddharth Bhargava

Research Analyst 

Matthews Asia

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