The Indonesian election & the economy

The lead up to the 2019 Presidential election in Indonesia will prove interesting for many reasons, not the least that the economy has become a campaign issue.

President Joko Widodo’s at-the-time controversial decision to appoint the Chairman of the nation’s top Muslim clerical body (MUI) as his running mate seems, so far, to have successfully neutered any attempt to “Islamacise” the campaign.

The choice of Ma’ruf Amin was a polarising one, as he supported the “212 Movement” that saw the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of Jakarta Governor “Ahok” Basuki last year.

An allegation of blasphemy against Ahok fuelled mass rallies in the capital city and other parts of the country to an extent that surprised everyone, and showed how the Muslim identity could be tapped into for political reasons.

The appointment of Ma’ruf Amin as Vice-Presidential candidate has forced the opposition to find another angle to attack the seemingly teflon-coated incumbent.

The opposition team is again led by Subianto Prabowo, the former lieutenant general in Indonesia’s special forces who challenged Joko Widodo in 2014 and lost by six percent.  He and his Gerindra Party have chosen wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno as running mate, and the two will focus their efforts on Jokowi’s economic performance.

Not surprisingly the economy, and job creation, is of high importance to voters, however it’s when the economics have a local impact, such as on the price of staple foods used in household dishes,  or the perception that foreigners are taking local jobs, that the topic becomes sharper.

So far Sandiaga (Indonesians prefer to use one name) made the price of basic food commodities a major campaign point, making numerous trips to traditional markets (pasar) and claiming that prices for products such as tempe (soy bean cake) have risen dramatically under Jokowi’s administration.

He has also criticised the government’s handling of the rupiah depreciation. [read here]

The Indonesian economy has in fact generally continued to perform well under Jokowi (as the President is popularly called) although he does have to explain how his goal of reaching 7% growth has not materialised.

The government’s economics team leads a $1 trillion economy and growth has remained steady at around 5%. 

Indonesia has made progress in reforming the regulatory environment for businesses since Jokowi took office in 2014. While it slipped one place in the 2019 World Bank Ease of Doing Business report, this still represents an increase on last year and with a jump of 42 spots in 4 years.

The government has a $300 billion dollar plan to improve and increase infrastructure and the efforts can been seen (in a country with a poor track record of delivery) The massive Trans-Java toll road will be operational by the end of this year and the government’s centre-piece Jakarta Mass Rapid Transport project is on track to open one month before the election.

The opposition’s early efforts have not yet converted voters. New survey data out [this week] strongly suggests that the election is the incumbent’s to lose. A Kompas poll showed Jokowi-Ma’ruf nearly 20 points ahead of Prabowo-Sandiago, 52.6% compared with 32.7%. Other polls show similar figures.

On top of that, a new Populi Center survey found 66.8% of respondents were satisfied with Jokowi’s performance as president.

This margin is remarkable when you consider the problems that keep piling up: a major plane crash, two major natural disasters, the rupiah at its lowest since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis crash and the current account deficit is nudging 3% of GDP.

During the 2014 campaign, Prabowo was outspoken on economic nationalism, and already he has talked of stopping imports of food and fuel as a way to make the nation self-sustaining in these industries.

But iis going to take much more than half-hearted digs at economic policy to claw back the commanding lead Jokowi has opened up just six months ahead of the election in April.

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