Indonesia’s Ruling Party May Face Trouble in 2019 Elections

Regional elections carried out in Indonesia last week hold ominous portents for President Joko Widodo and the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), which heads the government alliance, as growing Islamist sentiment appears to have propelled conservative-backed candidates into power.

PDI-P candidates of the party, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, lost in several provinces, especially those most densely populated, including East and West Java, North Sumatra, and West Kalimantan. The losses are regarded by some political analysts as straws in the wind for the 2019 Presidential elections, in which Jokowi, as he is known, is again expected to be opposed by Prabowo Subianto, the former Special Forces general whom he defeated in 2014.

More than 150 million voters across the country voted Wednesday to elect local candidates in 17 provinces, 39 cities and 115 regencies.

"The quick count results indicate that many candidate pairs carried by PDI-P were defeated so that it has become a political alarm," said Arif Nurul Imam, a political analyst from POINT Indonesia.

The PDIP won in only six of 17 provinces. "The support given to the candidates often ignored the grassroots so they didn’t get support from party sympathizers and the public," he said.

In West Java, for example, the PDI-P was the largest party contesting legislative seats, but its candidates got the fewest votes. Similarly in North Sumatra and East Java, he said, PDIP candidates also lost.

"Although politics are not always linear, the regional results can’t be ignored,” he said. “This is an alarm for PDI-P."


Issues that stand out are politicization of religion, race, ethnicity, and inter-group rivalries according to the latest report from the Jakarta-based research organization, Institute for Democracy and Peace, known as SETARA.

The organization monitored the use of identity politics in gubernatorial elections in North Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, and East Java. Data show religious polarization was most prevalent in North Sumatra, followed by West Java, and not significant in Central Java and East Java.

"The politicization of religion, race, ethnicity, and among groups is one of the worst ways to gain power because it can damage democracy itself, threatening harmony, social cohesion and national integration," said Halili, Research Director of SETARA Institute.

The majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims, but the pluralistic tradition is now under threat from extremist groups propelled in many cases by funds raised by figures backing the 66-year-old Prabowo.

Particularly ominous was the defeat for the governorship of North Sumatra of Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the candidate for a coalition led by Jokowi, as the president is known. Djarot, an ally of ousted Bangkok Governor Basuki Purnama Tjahaha, was defeated easily by Edy Rahmayadi, also a general, who was backed by an alliance of Islamist and nationalist parties supporting Prabowo. Djarot, a former Jakarta deputy governor under Ahok promised to fight corruption and bring transparency to the regional government. However, what has been dubbed a “ black campaign” featured doctored photos that appeared to show Djarot eating pork, among other sins.

Ahok, a Christian and an ethnic Chinese, was accused of insulting Islam in a 2016 speech in which he called on voters not to be "deceived" by those who use the Quran's Surah Al Amidah 51 to influence voters not to choose a non-Muslim as a politician. The case sparked outrage of Indonesia's conservative Muslims, who took to the streets of the capital and waged cyber war on social media. The case cost Ahok the Jakarta governor election. He was later jailed for two years on blasphemy charges.

Based on SETARA’s monitoring in the West Java gubernatorial contest, candidate pair Ridwan Kamil-Uu Ruzhanul Ulum (known as Rindu) and Deddy Mizwar-Dedi Mulyadi (2DM) were the also victims of identity politics. The Kamil organization was the target of campaigns alleging they were Shi'ite followers in a Sunni nation and didn’t practice Islamic guidance, also identifying them as supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) groups. 2DM were the targets of negative campaigns accusing them of support from paranormal and adherents of faith, as well as seeking support from magical figures through mystical rituals.

"If it is paired with voice distribution data according to some survey agencies, the identity politicization campaigns are expected to work effectively in urban areas, especially in the satellite areas of Jakarta," Halili said. "If the monitoring data is matched by the distribution of votes in the several survey agencies, the politicization of identity, especially religion, is quite effective in the North Sumatra gubernatorial election, where the ERAMAS pair dominated votes up to 85 percent in districts with Muslim majorities.”

Halili added that when compared with the dynamics of the 2017 regional elections, especially in Jakarta, the quantity and intensity of identity politicization is relatively small. The better electoral dynamics, he said, were influenced by factors such as the candidate itself, the composition of supporting party, and the political culture of each region. However, in particular, it was also influenced by the good performance of the Nusantara Task Force established by the National Police in 2017 to prevent and deal with politicization in next year’s presidential election.

"From the micro phenomena in West Java and North Sumatra, we can take a lot of insight, among others that the politicization of religion is always in the form of attacks on minorities, that are Shi'ite, Christian, animist, LGBT, and so on," he said.

In addition, the politicization of religion was largely perpetrated by informal political groups through black and negative campaigning. When asked who created and disseminated the bad campaign based on that identity, Hariri said they were "Informal political groups, starting from calling themselves GNPF, PA Alumni 212, and so on."

The GNPF refers to National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), which consists of well-known preachers and Islamic organizations to organize a series of demonstrations against Amok for several months during 2016-2017. Alumni 212 refers to those who followed the demonstrations against Ahok on Dec. 2, 2016 - later known as the 212 movement.

Hariri said that the politicization of identity, especially religion, proved effective to weaken a candidate in North Sumatra and West Java, and predicted it will be increasing in presidential elections next year.

Responding to this phenomenon, SETARA urged the Task Force of the Archipelago to map identity politicization activities, and for the police more intensely enforce the law against the perpetrators. "And most of all, I think it's up to the elite (politics), they have to stop playing identity politics, especially religion," he said.