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Analysis: Indonesia set to see first 3-way presidential race since 2009 that risks splitting society

JAKARTA: As Indonesia heads to the polls on Valentine’s Day next year, they are set to choose one of three presidential and vice-presidential candidates as their next leaders, the first time since 2009 that there’s a three-horse race.

Having more than two pairs of candidates means voters have more options, analysts told CNA.

It will also force the candidates to develop better programmes to win over voters. 

However, it could also mean that the candidates would use identity politics to convince voters, leaving the society polarised.

But the situation will be slightly different this time since there will be three pairs.

If none of them receives more than 50 per cent of the votes, the two pairs with the most votes will go into a second round of voting, according to the election law. 

Since no polls have shown a pair’s popularity rating is more than 50 per cent, Indonesia will likely vote in a second round on June 26 next year.

According to pollster Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) on Oct 22, Mr Subianto and Mr Raka are leading with 35.9 per cent, followed by Mr Pranowo and Mr Mahfud at 26.1 per cent.

In third place are Mr Baswedan and Mr Iskandar, whose popularity rating is 19.6 per cent.

The last time Indonesia held elections with three pairs was in 2009 when then-incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ran against his Vice President Jusuf Kalla and his predecessor, former president Megawati Soekarnoputri. 

Mr Yudhoyono won in just one round as he managed to clinch 60.8 per cent of the votes. Still, analysts think he had the advantage of running with ongoing clear programmes and steady political machinery as an incumbent.


Mr Wawan Mas’udi, a social and political lecturer from Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada, said the number of pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates results from negotiations between political elites to form a political grouping. 

He pointed out that they form their own groupings or coalitions based on their interests, such as power-sharing or how they can drive policies, which would drive the economy or certain businesses, said Mr Mas’udi who is also the dean of the University of Gadjah Mada’s social and politics faculty.

“Recruiting the next Indonesian president is a very closed process which can only be determined by the elites. 

“This is different compared with several countries with a presidential system, for example, the US as they have primary elections and so on,” said Mr Mas’udi. 

Apart from adopting a presidential system, Indonesia also adopts a multi-party system with nine political parties in parliament.

But Mr Mas’udi said their ideology is not consistently straightforward, and they form their own coalitions based on their needs. 

“Conservative parties in Western countries, for example, won’t be able to join a coalition with a socialist or left-wing party because they have different ideologies,” he said.  

However, there is no such ideological difference in Indonesia.


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As a result of having a three-horse race this time, the candidates must work harder to enrich their programmes and convince voters since people have more options to choose from than just two pairs, said Mr Mas’udi. 

Having three pairs compared to just two will also give voters more room to discuss, debate and better understand the candidates, said Mr Kevin O’Rourke, an analyst with Jakarta-based political risk consulting firm Reformasi Information Services. 

He added that a young democracy like Indonesia needs more elections and candidates, especially considering it was once ruled under the same authoritarian president for 32 years.  

Indonesia was ruled by its second president Soeharto from 1966 to 1998, until he was forced to step down after nationwide riots and protests. 

His resignation paved the way for Indonesia’s democracy. Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is now considered the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the United States.  

“Basically, this (having options) all provides input for the ordinary public into politics and policy-making, and this input is something that these national elites desperately need, so the whole process with more candidates is better,” he claimed.


Mdm Titi Anggraini, an election law lecturer at the University of Indonesia, concurred that having options is good. 

Since there will be several national debates in which the candidates must participate, how well a pair performs and can sell their ideas will be crucial to win over voters, said Mdm Anggraini.

“With two pairs, debates usually matter, but if there are three, debates will be more crucial. 

“Currently, no pair is dominant, and there are still undecided voters or swing voters who will watch the debates to make a decision,” she added. 

According to various polls, there are about 20 to 30 per cent of undecided voters.

Mdm Anggraini and Mr Mas’udi from the University of Gadjah Mada both said they believe a three-horse race has intensified the fight to win the votes in Java, where more than half of the country’s population resides.

“As long as a pair secures the majority of Java – it is already half of the total voters in Indonesia,” said Mdm Anggraini.

The government said a second round would require a bigger budget to hold the elections. 

When asked by reporters in mid-September whether there is a budget to hold two rounds of elections, President  Widodo said: “Ask the finance minister. It will definitely be prepared.”

But Mdm Anggraini said it is highly unlikely that a pair can win in just one round this time, given nobody is an incumbent and the candidates’ current popularity ratings linger between 20 to 36 per cent. 

Therefore, she added that religious leaders will be more exploited since they have huge followers, and it is harder to win with three pairs.

Historically, in Indonesia, religious leaders are influential people. 

They head religious groups with huge followers such as Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organisation in Indonesia and the world and Muhammadiyah, the second biggest Islamic organisation in Indonesia.

They are believed to be able to influence their followers on who they should choose.  

If there are three candidates, more people will want to gain the support of these leaders. The candidates will try their best to win them over, said Mdm Anggraini. 

Although the election law prohibits places of worship from being used for campaigning, there are grey areas in which the General Election Supervisory Agency (BAWASLU) will have difficulties determining violations, said analysts.

“Because, for example, there is no prohibition in visiting Islamic boarding schools, and we all know authorities don’t have much access to them,” said Mdm Anggraini.

Boarding schools are where many religious leaders spend their time. They are respected by students who will most likely be first-time voters. 

Whatever the leaders say, the students will most likely follow. 

Hence if a religious leader endorses a particular candidate, the students could choose the same person, said Mdm Anggraini.

Political identity will also be used as much as possible to gain votes.  

“The nationalists will portray themselves as religious people while the Islamists will highlight their nationalism without leaving their Islamic identity,” she added.

Consequently, it is highly possible that society will become more polarised than in previous elections in 2019, where Islam was used as a campaigning tool even though both Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto are Muslims.

It is easier to prevent polarisation if there is only one round, Mdm Anggraini stated. 

With two rounds, the pair coming in third will consolidate with another pair for the second round, and everyone will create various controversial issues to win. 

“So three pairs is good, as long as it ends in one round.” 


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