“North Sumatra’s 2018 gubernatorial election, the key battle-ground which reflects national politics” by Deasy Simandjuntak

2018/36, 6 April 2018

On 27 June 2018, Indonesian voters in 171 regions will flock to their local ballots to vote for governors, district-heads and mayors. With 152 million voters this year, it will be one of the largest one-day elections in the world.

Regions under contest include Indonesia’s most populous provinces: West Java (31.7 million voters), Central Java (27.3 million), East Java (30.4 million) and North Sumatra (9.2 million). Together they make up more than half of this year’s total number of voters. Because of the large electorate size, local dynamics can be a useful barometer to gauge the strength of political parties and the popularity of President Jokowi. This is especially important coming up to Indonesia’s presidential election in 2019.

North Sumatra’s gubernatorial election, with 9.2 million voters, is the key battle-ground of the non-Java regions with a huge impact on national politics for the following reasons:

Firstly, the competition between party-coalitions in North Sumatra mostly resembles that at the national level between the government parties (led by the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle-PDIP) and the opposition parties (the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party-PKS and the nationalist Great Indonesia Movement party-Gerindra). North Sumatra’s election is a two-horse race between ret. Lt. Gen. Edy Rahmayadi/Musa Rajeckshah, backed by PKS, Gerindra and the National Mandate Party-PAN, vs Djarot Saiful Hidayat/Sihar Sitorus, backed by PDIP and the United Development Party-PPP.

This stand-off resembles the 2017 Jakarta election, where Anies Baswedan, who was backed by the PKS-Gerindra coalition, was triumphant over the PDIP-backed former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). These parties intend to repeat their successful religionist-nationalist coalition strategy in North Sumatra this year. [PKS-Gerindra-PAN also coalesce in 33 other regions. These recurring coalitions undoubtedly consolidate the three parties’ alliance and could be a reflection of their strategy in the 2019 presidential election.]

Secondly, North Sumatra’s election resembles national politics in terms of background of candidates. Edy’s background as former high-ranking general and backed by Gerindra resemble the characteristics of Prabowo, Gerindra’s leader and likely contender to President Jokowi in 2019. Djarot is the former Jakarta’s vice-governor who served with Ahok. Voters associate him with clean governance and President Jokowi. In short, the coalition and candidate rivalry in North Sumatera seems to foretells what is likely in the 2019 presidential election.

Thirdly, North Sumatra is heterogeneous like Jakarta. The province has Batak (45%), Javanese (33%), Malay (6%) and Chinese (2.7%) populations. Islam (66%) is the predominant religion, followed by Protestant-Christian (27%), Catholicism (4%) and Buddhism (2.5%). Edy-Musa is a Malay-Arab pair, while Djarot-Sihar is a Javanese-Batak pair. However, none of the candidates is Chinese, thus identity-politics will not be racial like in Jakarta. On religious lines, however, the fact that Sihar is the only Christian while the others are Muslim could prompt the conservative Muslims to mobilize against Djarot-Sihar, although so far this has not happened.

Lastly, North Sumatra’s election is a test-case for voters’ leadership preference: a clean-efficient governance exemplified by Djarot or a nationalist-Islamist leadership represented by Edy. Historically, North Sumatra has suffered from major corruption cases involving elected governors, which made voter turnouts generally low due to scepticism about local elections. Whether the presence of Djarot, a candidate with a “clean” image, will increase voters’ participation this year, will thus be interesting to observe.

Deasy Simandjuntak is Visiting Fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.