Aaron L. Connelly, Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institue, discusses the Indonesian presidential election between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. He notes that the presidential race is closer than was anticipated three months ago and outlines the key events that have led to the turnaround in the polls. He also explains that while polling data from the most reliable polling firms has not been released, we can assume that the race is now very close. Aaron outlines what we could expect from a Prabowo presidency, and the positions that each candidate has taken on Indonesia-Australia relations.
Steven Hong: So I’m here today with Aaron Connelly, the Indonesia fellow at the Lowy Institute, to talk about the Indonesian presidential elections on 9th of July. Aaron you note that new polling data suggests that the Indonesia elections are a lot closer now than we anticipated three months ago, can you elaborate on this?
Aaron Connelly: Sure thanks Steve, we’ve seen four polls in recent months from less established organizations that show a slight Prabowo lead. I and most other observers don’t normally assume that those firms’ results are dispositive, as they don’t have the established track record for accuracy that other pollsters have. The problem is that none of the more respected pollsters have come out with polls in the last month, though we understand that they had at least one poll in the field. So that raises the question: why aren’t they releasing new polls? And one possible explanation is that each of the top three firms, CSIS, Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting and Indikator, are run by Jokowi supporters. So for example the head of CSIS which is also Indonesia’s leading international relations think tank is also Jokowi’s lead foreign affairs advisor. If their polls showed a big Jokowi lead as they had in the past they would’ve been released by now. So while the evidence isn’t definitive we have to assume that the race is at least, very tight.
Steven: So what key events have led to this dramatic turnaround in the polls?
Aaron: Well Jokowi’s campaign really struggled to get off the ground; remember he was only named the party’s candidate in late March, you had legislative elections in April and after those elections we saw a lot of barely hidden infighting between Jokowi’s team and those close to party chair Megawati Sukarnoputri and her daughter Puan, so Indonesians were looking for Jokowi to establish himself as a leader in his own right independent of Megawati, who has lost three presidential elections and he did not do that. In fact Megawati and Puan downplayed his role within the party at press conferences. At the same time Prabowo’s campaign team was painting Jokowi as all hope and no substance. So by the time Jokowi’s team released a detailed 41 page manifesto Prabowo’s team already defined Jokowi as a lightweight who was taking orders from Mega (Megawati). So second there’s also the ground game and the air war, Prabowo built a coalition of parties with a very well-oiled machinery that’s designed to get out the vote at a local level and Jokowi is relying on this very diffuse network of volunteers, one relatively optimistic PDIP loyalist described it to me as Visigoth hordes taking on the Roman army and added that he hoped the result would turn out the same but Prabowa’s organization appears to be overcoming all that hope, so on the air waves Prabowo is winning as well, his coalition includes two media magnates who’s television stations hold a 40% share of Indonesian households, Jokowi’s coalition also includes a media magnate but his share is only 2% percent, and that’s before we get into social media where Prabowo’s team have been releasing some very slick campaign videos that have performed very well among younger Indonesian voters.
Steven: I understand that some of Prabowo’s supporters overnight have been using your Interpreter blog post to claim that they’ve taken the lead in polls, but that’s not quite right is it?
Aaron: That’s not quite right, and its not what I wrote, we don’t have surveys that show Prabowo leading in the polls from well established consulting firms and we’re still waiting for those surveys to come out, they may show a Prabowo lead, they may show the race in a dead heat, or they may show a slight Jokowi lead, but based on the evidence we have available, we do have to consider that Prabowo may have taken a lead based on less established survey firm’s results, we also have to consider that if local cotters, if local party officials are seeing a Prabowo lead, they’re much more likely to want to go over to Prabowo’s side, the bandwagon effect the momentum can have in Indonesian elections is enormous because these local officials want to be on the side of the winner for the next five years. So some of this momentum may at this point be self-sustaining. That said there is still two weeks left in the campaign, there’s a lot that can happen we’ll have to watch very closely to see if Jokowi can stage a comeback.
Steven: So what would a Prabowo presidency mean for Indonesia’s relations with the rest of the world?
Aaron: Well the truth is we don’t really know, Prabowo has a very complicated personal history, he was dismissed from the military in 1998, for his involvement in the kidnapping and deaths of student activists who were opposed to Suharto’s rule. As a result he has not been issued a visa to enter the United States in the last 14 years. He’s also used a lot of very nationalist rhetoric on the stump, talking about foreign companies bleeding Indonesia of its national wealth. There is reason to believe that he’s perhaps a little bit more moderate than his rhetoric would suggest, but because Indonesian institutions democratic institutions are still quite young and because he has implied that he would like to undo some of the democratic reforms, that have been made since 1998, we have some reasons to be concerned about what a Prabowo presidency would look like.
Steven: During the presidential debate on Sunday night, both candidates addressed Indonesia’s relationship with Australia at length. What did we learn about their positions?
Aaron: Well it’s interesting because both candidates started out by saying that they believed the problem lied on the Australian side and not on the Indonesian side, Prabowo Subianto said, he thought that perhaps Australians had a phobia of Indonesia and Jokowi said he thought there was a problem with Australians not respecting Indonesia’s dignity. But after those early response, they both reverted into rhetoric that is very much in the mainstream, on Indonesia-Australia relations, both saying that they thought it was very important to be friends with Australia and that it was important to resolve issues diplomatically.
Steven: Thanks for joining me today Aaron.
Aaron: Thanks Steve.