https://www.rte.ie/news/player/world-report/2019/0414/ – radio report here
JAKARTA — On Wednesday next week, perhaps the world’s most logistically-challenging elections will take place across Indonesia’s 3,000 mile wide, 13,000 island archipelago.
Over 192 million people are eligible to vote at over 800,000 polling stations overseen by 6 million election officials, with roughly 245,000 candidates contesting around 20,000 seats for local and national legislatures.
India’s elections, which started last week, entail much bigger numbers, around 900 million voters — the biggest elections the world has ever seen — but voting there is staggered and will run until May 19.
Indonesia’s elections take place on a single day, April 17, and most eyes will be on the presidential race, a re-run of the 2014 contest between President Joko Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general.
Incumbent Widodo has looked unassailable since campaigning started last September. Most opinion polls over those months put him between 15 and 20 per cent ahead of challenger Prabowo, who was accused of lacklustre campaigning, or only running to boost the profile of his Gerindra party ahead of parliamentary elections, which are also being held on April 17.
But polls can be proven wrong when it comes to counting the results, as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K referendum on remaining in the European Union, both of which delivered surprise results. Closer to Indonesia, odds were long on the opposition winning a historic first ever election victory in Malaysia last year – but win they did.
The 2014 election campaign also saw Widodo well ahead of Prabowo in pre-election polling, but in the end, Widodo’s winning margin of 7 per cent was narrower than expected, and Prabowo mounted a legal challenge to the results.
That campaign was marred by hoax claims about the candidates, and with 150 million people on social media in Indonesia now, the situation is “much worse” this year, according to Harry Sufehmi, founder of Mafindo, a group that sends out corrections on Facebook and WhatsApp. “It’s uglier, and sometimes can be pretty hard to verify,” he added.
A recent sample of hoaxes includes images of political rallies in Turkey manipulated to suggest the events took place in Indonesia, or claims that some Islamic parties were campaigning for polygamy, or warnings that the country would be flooded with Chinese laborers building new roads and railways and ports.
Some of the content typically questions a candidate’s piety, and a country where 90% of the population is Muslim, any indication that a candidate might be weak when it comes to matters of the faith will be seized upon.
In 2016, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of capital Jakarta, and a Protestant of Chinese descent, was accused of blasphemy against Islam. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in Jakarta in November and December that year, calling for the governor to be jailed. After losing the governorship of the city in subsequent elections, the former governor was sentenced to 2 years in prison.
As Purnama was an ally of the president– he was deputy governor when Widodo was Governor of Jakarta prior to winning the presidency in 2014 — the opposition seized on the allegations, which spread via messaging apps and social media.
With the opposition looking likely to target his Islamic credentials, Widodo opted for a 76 year old cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate, a decision that disappointed some of the self-styled reformist voters that backed him last time around.
Under pressure to finance his campaign, Prabowo went with the wealthy 49 year old businessman Sandiaga Uno as his running mate, a move that aimed to cajole younger voters away from the president and target his economic record.
Widodo said at the start of his presidency in 2014 that he hoped Indonesia’s economy would grow at 7% a year. The reality has been closer to 5%, though Widodo has overseen the building of new roads and railways, and, in the capital Jakarta, which is notorious for its traffic jams, a newly-opened metro system.
“I would say maybe 7 or 7 and a half, out of ten” said Siwage Dharma Negara, an Indonesian economist at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a Southeast Asia-focused research institute in Singapore, assessing the president’s record.
“Many of the projects he completed this year were started under the previous government but for the voters, they see this has been accomplished in the Jokowi era, such as the metro in Jakarta.” Negara said.
Not only might voters see the shiny new metro and vote accordingly, in Jakarta at least, elsewhere in the country there is the issue of widespread cash handouts to voters from candidates, with some estimates suggesting that a third of voters in previous elections had been slipped an envelope from a candidate or two, or even three, usually right before election day.
For Ward Berenschot, co-author of Democracy for Sale: Elections, Clientelism, and the State in Indonesia, the role of money, good and bad, means that rumors and hoaxes might not sway voters in the end. “It is not yet clear how big the impact of all that social media activity will be” he said.
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in JakartaShow