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“The 2018 Indonesian Local Elections Results: 'Rehearsal' for Party Machinery and Mobilization of Identity-Politics” by Deasy Simandjuntak

2018/78, 6 July 2018

Indonesian voters in 171 regions have voted for governors, district-heads and mayors on 27 June 2018. With 152 million eligible voters and a voter-turnout of 73.24% based on quick count results thus far, not only was this years’ elections among the largest in the world, but also estimated of having a higher participation rate compared to the previous elections.

Due to its proximity to the 2019 presidential election, many observers had considered the elections a political bellwether to gauge the popularity of political parties’ and their coalitions’ as well as that of President Joko Widodo’s.

The fact that the candidates backed by the main government party PDIP have only won in six out of 17 provinces - and have, most notably, lost in largely populated provinces of West Java, East Java and North Sumatra - has thus triggered concerns that the President’s popularity might be waning.

However, the 2018 elections should not be seen entirely as barometer of national politics in 2019.

Firstly, party coalitions at the local level did not always correspond to those at the national level. In many regions, government parties have endorsed rivalling candidates and even formed coalitions with the opposition: PDIP coalesced with Gerindra in 48 regions, with PKS in 33 regions and with both in 21 regions. North Sumatra’s gubernatorial election’s winner, for example, is the candidate backed by a mixed-coalition of opposition and government parties, making it hard to say whether this was the triumph of the government or the opposition.

Secondly, local elections were about local candidates’ appeal and not about parties. Since the first local elections were held in 2005, parties have functioned merely as candidate nominators. They also tend to nominate figures that are already popular, mostly those in the bureaucracy, such as incumbent governors and mayors/district-heads. This year, the winner in West Java is the popular Bandung mayor and his running-mate the Tasikmalaya district-head. Similarly, Central Java was won by the incumbent governor. East Java’s winner is the former Minister of Social Affairs and her running-mate the charismatic district-head of Trenggalek.

This, however, does not mean that the results of this year’s elections will not have any bearing on 2019.

Firstly, the new governors’ political preference can influence voting patterns in their provinces. In the 2014 presidential election, the governors of West Java, West Sumatra and West Nusa Tenggara, seemed to have swayed the electorates towards Prabowo Subianto, President Jokowi’s rival. It is thus good news for Jokowi that this years’ winners in the three Java provinces have openly said that they would support the President in 2019. The survey done on 27 June showed the President’s popularity in large provinces is at 50-73%, except in West Java which is 40%.

Secondly, the 2018 elections functioned as a “rehearsal” for parties to try out their machinery on the ground. The fact that the less popular candidates backed by the Islamist party PKS emerged as runner-up in West Java, and only lost by a small margin in Central Java, meant that the party’s machinery, and their religious campaigning, worked well. PKS has thus found renewed confidence to nominate a contender to Jokowi in 2019.

Thirdly, this year’s elections showed the prevalence of identity-politics mobilization, such as in North Sumatra and West Kalimantan, where the winners benefitted from PKS-Gerindra’s Islamic-charged campaigning. Seeing the effectiveness of such mobilization, the same strategy could be used in 2019.

In short, the 2018 elections’ results are not the best indicator for 2019. With the presidential nomination period starting on 4-10th August 2018 and the deliberation to scrap or sustain the presidential threshold underway at the Constitutional Court, the next thirty days will be a crucial period determining the battle-lines for 2019.

Dr 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.