The current presidential race between the incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi)–Ma’aruf Amin partnership and the Prabowo Subianto–Sandiaga Uno challengers reflects a major flaw in the country’s political discourse. Their campaigns are criticised as ‘too general’ and ‘superficial’. This was evident in the first presidential debate, with many describing their performances as lacklustre and overly-rehearsed. 

While livelier than the first debate, both candidates failed to challenge their opponents’ policy platforms during the second presidential debate. This highlights both candidates’ disproportionate use of personalities or controversies — instead of policies — to win votes.

The notion that identities can override policy issues may seem absurd, but it is common practice in politics. Research from Duke University proposes that policy positions and social identities compete to shape voter preferences.

The 2016 US Presidential election is a potent example. Motivated by racial resentment, between 6.7 and 9.2 million Americans who previously supported Obama supported Donald Trump in 2016. US voters also encountered narratives of ‘unstable’ Trump and ‘crooked’ Hillary rather than their policy initiatives.

Identity also influenced the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote. About 40 per cent of people who identified as ‘British’ and 70 per cent of those who identified as ‘English’ voted to withdraw from the European Union.

Both Prabowo–Sandiaga and Jokowi–Ma’ruf are taking advantage of this phenomenon. Prabowo’s campaign endorses a Manichean mindset, casting voters as either winners or losers. With Indonesia on the verge of breaking down, Prabowo’s ‘winners’ support him as the saviour of the nation, while ‘losers’ are those who disagree with his position.

Prabowo–Sandiaga intensify this narrative by selectively using cases that best represent their claims of a catastrophic Indonesia, such as suicides driven by financial distress, or the surging price of food. Yet Prabowo–Sandiaga’s initiatives to address these issues remain questionable.

Jokowi and Ma’ruf seek to dismiss Prabowo’s claims as a hoax-driven campaign. Jokowi–Ma’ruf liken Prabowo–Sandiaga’s campaign to the Firehouse of Falsehood propaganda model associated with Trump’s campaign in 2016 — ‘high numbers of channels and messages’ and ‘a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions’.

This was apparent in the first presidential debate when Jokowi mentioned Ratna Sarumpaet, Prabowo’s former campaigner. She deceived the nation by claiming to have been assaulted until the police later found that her ‘injuries’ were the result of plastic surgery. While this played no role in either team’s policy discourse, it reminded the public of Prabowo–Sandiaga’s association with the nation’s most popular trickster.

The absence of issue ownership in both parties reinforces the influence of identity politics on voter preferences. Issue ownership is widely used to scrutinise party and candidate agendas during elections in the United States and Europe. The performance of a political party or candidate can be tested based on their policy stances or the constituency they seek to attract.

Individuals can then make their voting decision by evaluating each party’s competence in handling specific issues. Parties’ issue ownership may, to some extent, ease voters’ ability to better associate presidential candidates with particular policy directions or proposals, and vice versa.

Indonesian political parties appear to have little differences in ideology and policy platforms. Politics is dominated by party elites who have a common desire to secure their share of governance. Any distinction heavily relies on the party’s stance towards the role of Islam in public affairs.

A recent survey reveals a consistent picture of ideological convergence amongst Indonesia’s political parties across a range of issues — with the notable exception of religion. A seperate study further highlights how Jokowi–Ma’ruf’s and Prabowo–Sandiaga’s policy manifestos do not show any meaningful or substantial distinction.

With minimal differences in policy platforms, Indonesian parties can hardly develop solid ground to reinforce their expertise in handling specific issues.

Arousing voter appetite to be more critical towards policy stances has proven to be a real challenge, even in mature democracies like the United States or the United Kingdom. Indonesian political parties and candidates currently face the same challenge. Consideration should be given to how voters can exercise clear and critical judgement on policy platforms of candidates.

With voting less than a month away, it would be ambitious and unrealistic to expect a drastic change of political attitude throughout the remaining period of the Indonesian election. It is a systemic and behavioural issue that requires more than just one electoral season to fix. All political actors and voters need to understand the severity of this threat to a healthy democracy.

Jokowi–Ma’ruf and Prabowo–Sandiaga need to provide more room for policy discussions that can enlighten voters on how they can best address pressing issues.

For a start, they can substantively challenge each other’s platforms and elaborate their respective programs instead of casually dropping jargon or political jabs that have run stale.


Michello Loebis is Consultant at Kiroyan Partners, a Jakarta-based public affairs consulting firm. She specializes in the areas of public affairs and strategic communication with core expertise in political communication discourse. The views expressed are her own.

Source: East Asia Forum, March 30, 2019.

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