Simultaneous Indonesian elections could kill off smaller parties
28 Nov 2018|

It is finally dawning on Indonesia’s political elite that holding presidential and legislative elections on the same day next April could sound the death knell for as many as four of the 10 political parties holding seats in the current 560-seat House of Representatives.

Recent polls show that one of the unintended consequences of the amended 2017 election law is that President Joko Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of opposition rival Prabowo Subianto now stand to dominate like never before.

‘Parliament essentially saw it as a cost-saving venture’, says Australian electoral expert Kevin Evans, noting an Indonesian obsession with keeping parties to a minimum. ‘The parties would have been exposed to a range of views, but they wouldn’t have listened to them.’

Previously, parliamentary and then presidential elections were staged three months apart, allowing parties that cleared the old 3.5% vote threshold to form coalitions ahead of the country choosing a new national leader.

But already under pressure from a new 4% threshold, the remaining 12 parties in the 2019 field (including four newcomers) aren’t enjoying the same coat-tail effect; an Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) poll puts PDI-P ahead with 27%, trailed by Gerindra on 20%.

That has left the once all-powerful Golkar Party on 10%—still four percentage points short of its showing in the past two elections—and just three of the other parties hovering on the threshold that permits representation in the newly expanded 575-seat chamber.

‘We didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be without a presidential candidate on the ballot’, admits one senior Golkar official. ‘Now we have to try and convince voters that a vote for us is also a vote for Jokowi [Widodo]. Nobody planned for this.’

Golkar has fielded presidential candidates in two of the past four elections, but despite never winning, it has always ended up as the main pillar of the ruling coalition. Next year, it may well find itself with fewer cards to play in securing cabinet posts.

The National Awakening Party (PKB) looks safe, thanks to the support of the mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), whose former supreme leader, conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, is Widodo’s controversial vice-presidential candidate.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party (PD) and media mogul Surya Paloh’s National Democrat Party (Nasdem) also look out of danger, but the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and United Development (PPP) parties are both in jeopardy at this point.

Chief political minister Wiranto’s People Conscience Party (Hanura), a member of the ruling coalition, is almost certain to fall by the wayside, and the National Mandate Party (PAN), a Prabowo ally, is struggling to stay relevant, with its leaders pulling in different directions.

Electoral experts recall doom and gloom forecasts prior to previous elections, but they acknowledge that simultaneous elections introduce a different dynamic given the way PDI-P and Gerindra appear to be sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

Politicians complain that the country’s 191 million eligible voters only have eyes for the presidential race, and most analysts agree that it will take a minor miracle—and a serious economic crisis—for Prabowo to haul back Widodo’s commanding 57% to 30% lead in the LSI poll.

It’s a much different race from 2014, when Prabowo’s late charge had Widodo’s supporters on tenterhooks before he emerged with a winning 6.3% margin. This time the challenger seems almost reticent, the money isn’t there—and a very focused president has the power of the incumbency behind him.

The LSI survey gives Widodo massive leads in populous East and Central Java and even a slight edge in the hotly contested battleground of West Java, the country’s biggest province and one of the four regions in which Prabowo was victorious in 2014.

Prabowo claims his campaign is self-funding, but his running mate, Sandiaga Uno, acknowledged during a recent session with foreign journalists that the money flow has been slow. It’s also clear that there’s a lack of cohesion among the four parties that make up his opposition coalition, again because of the twin-election syndrome.

Yudhoyono has refused to campaign for Prabowo until the final month, instead focusing on his party’s efforts to win 10% of the vote in the legislative elections, roughly the same as in 2014 when the outgoing president was no longer the vote-getting factor he had been five years before.

After failing to team his elder son, Agus Harimurti, with first Widodo and then Prabowo, Yudhoyono had no choice but to stay in the opposition coalition; a party that doesn’t endorse a presidential candidate for 2019 can’t endorse a candidate for the next election in 2024.

Democrat Party sources say the former president is fixated on positioning Harimurti for the presidency in 2024, when he will be much more seasoned politician. His rivals then could well include Uno, Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and possibly Puan Maharani, daughter of PDI-P chair Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Prabowo may get some consolation from seeing Gerindra overtake Golkar as the second biggest party. Distracted by his alleged involvement in a power station corruption case, new Golkar chair Airlangga Hartarto will almost certainly be deposed at the party’s December 2019 congress if the election goes badly.

The Widodo camp, for its part, appears to have largely shaken off the ill-effects of the president’s choice of Amin as his running mate, a move that persuaded the opposition to eschew religion as a weapon and home in instead on a sluggish economy. ‘Any time spent away from the economy would be a waste of time’, says Uno. ‘It [Islam] just hasn’t come up in any of our focus group discussions with constituents.’