Indonesian Elections: A Watershed? – Analysis


By Julia Marie Ewert

In the next few weeks Indonesia will elect a new People’s Consultative Assembly and a new president. The legislative elections are scheduled for 9 April and presidential elections will take place on 9 July. With incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono being barred from a third term by the constitution, the Indonesian political scene will be fundamentally reshaped. The change of leadership in the largest Muslim-majority country in the world and the world’s fourth most populous country will have an impact beyond South East Asia.

The Indonesian legislature, the People’s Consultative Assembly, consists of the People’s Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) and the Regional Representative Council. Of the 692 seats, 560 are in the People’s Representative Council and 132 in the Regional Representative Council.

The Partai Demokrat (PD) under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is currently the strongest force and won 150 seats in the 2009 elections, receiving almost 21% of the votes. The second strongest political group is Aburizal Bakrie’s Golkar Party (Partai Golongan Karya) that won 107 seats and around 14.5% of votes. The PDI-P (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) under former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is the third strongest force: they won 95 seats and around 14% of the votes.

In this year’s elections, 15 parties have passed the registration requirements of being represented in every Indonesian province and at least 30% of their members being female. How many votes the different parties receive in April is closely intertwined with July’s presidential election: according to a change in the election law in 2008 only parties or coalitions with at least 20% of the seats in DPR or 25% of popular votes in the parliamentary elections are eligible to nominate a candidate, which makes the choice of candidate crucial for the party’s election result and vice versa.

‘Jokowi’ – Indonesia’s Obama?

Under the requirements of the 2008 election law, the number of prospective candidates for the presidential election has been limited. The rising star in Indonesian politics is Jakarta’s incumbent governor and PDI-P member, Joko Widodo, also called ‘Jokowi’ and, occasionally, ‘Indonesia’s Obama’. As a self-made successful businessman who was born in a slum, Jokowi has managed to impress the Indonesian electorate by staying down to earth, by introducing reforms during his time as mayor in Solo and governor of Jakarta, and by keeping close relations to the people.

The main issues the newly elected president will face are the reform of Indonesia’s poor public health system, fighting corruption and reforming the public service, as well as developing infrastructure. Two of these three issues are Jokowi’s strengths: during his time as mayor in Solo he introduced a very popular healthcare card scheme and later also brought it to Jakarta. His improvements of the public services in Jakarta have met with wide approval.

Jokowi’s nomination as the PDI-Ps presidential candidate will boost votes for the PDI-P in the DPR. According to surveys he is very likely to become Indonesia’s new president. Yet, it is difficult to determine the direction of Jokowi’s possible presidency. Hopes are high and his past achievements point towards an expansion of the reforms he initiated in Solo and Jakarta. Nevertheless, under the current system, it will be difficult for him to find the right balance in his relations with Indonesia’s oligarchs. Political corruption has worsened over Yudhoyono’s last term and despite the establishment of a functional democratic system over the last 15 years, views on the state of Indonesia’s democracy still remain mixed. Once in power, Jokowi would have to carefully balance relations with Indonesia’s political elite and, most delicately, with his close friend and mentor Megawati. This could prove especially difficult as Jokowi’s success would decrease Megawati’s power within the party.

The second-strongest candidate is Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of President Suharto. Seen as a representative of Indonesia’s oligarchic elite, he is the counterpart of Jokowi and is seen as less of a reformer. Nevertheless, he has established his image as a man who does what it takes to improve things in Indonesia. His party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (GERINDRA), won only 4.5% of votes in the 2009 elections – which is far from the 25% needed in this year’s elections for him to be an eligible candidate for the presidency.

The third main contestant is the successful businessman Aburizal Bakrie. He has been Chairman of the Golkar Party since 2009. Despite Suharto’s fall 15 years ago, a renewed nostalgia for the economic situation under Golkar might increase their share of votes.

The outcome of the elections is thus very likely to be a victory for Jokowi. According to one opinion poll, Jokowi could win as much as 40% of votes, followed by Prabowo with around 10%. From the next elections in 2019 on, both legislative and presidential elections will be held on the same day, which would increase transparency about parties and their candidates.

Impact on relations with the EU?

Relations with the EU have developed slowly over the last years. The 2009 signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreement has only recently been ratified by the European Parliament. It still needs to be formally adopted by the European Council. Even though Indonesia generates 40% of ASEAN’s GDP, EU trade with Indonesia only accounts for around 14% of its trade with ASEAN countries and Indonesia is only is the EU’s fourth largest trade partner in ASEAN.

The EU calls Indonesia a ‘priority country’ and commends Indonesia for being ‘the most democratic country in the region’. Nevertheless, the EU has not yet made Indonesia one of its strategic partners. High Representative Catherine Ashton visited Indonesia for the first time in November 2013 where she met Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa and ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh.

There remains much room for improvement in EU-Indonesia relations. Indonesia’s interest in the EU is mainly as an economic and trade partner and as a possibly good partner for strengthening relations with ASEAN. It remains to be seen whether the PCA will really intensify cooperation in counter-terrorism, environmental protection, tourism, piracy, disaster relief, maritime security, and non-traditional security threats.

Whether any of the possible new leaders would be likely to substantively change the course of relations with the EU is questionable. The domestic issues the new government will face are far bigger and more urgent than relations with the EU. Economic and political dialogue only takes place on senior official level – the establishment of an annual summit could demonstrate political will on both sides and push relations to the next level. These are steps that any Indonesian government should be interested in – and the EU as well.

Indonesia is also unlikely to change its moderate foreign policy of seeking a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ between all relevant powers. It has not sought to play a leading role in ASEAN or in the South China Sea dispute with China. In 2013, Jokowi initiated a meeting between governors and mayors of ASEAN capitals, which could be an indication of a focus on regional issues. Nevertheless, Jokowi’s agenda has been predominantly domestic so far. This could mean that technocrats would dominate foreign policy making. Yet, even though as a G20 member Indonesia cannot remain isolated from global issues, regional issues are clearly of higher priority to Indonesia than the EU.


It remains difficult to determine Indonesia’s post-election situation. Given the huge popularity of Jokowi, his nomination as presidential candidate will boost votes for the PDI-P in the DPR and almost certainly lead to his victory in the presidential election. Relations with the EU are not likely to undergo substantive change. The main challenges in the relationship are basic steps that require political will on both sides – regardless of party affiliation.

EU-Asia Centre

The EU-Asia Centre aims to fill a void and establish itself as the leading, Brussels-based research policy think tank on EU-Asia relations, covering developments in Asia and relations between the EU and Asia.

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