By Zahara Tiba
Millions of Indonesians will vote in regional polls Wednesday that are seen as a critical warmup for presidential and legislative elections next year.
Up to 152 million voters are eligible to choose 17 governors, 39 mayors and 115 district chiefs in races in various parts of the archipelago, ranging from Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province on New Guinea island, to westernmost Aceh on the tip of Sumatra.
With contests in Indonesia’s most densely populated regions representing 82 percent of its electorate, the June 26 polls are a key test for political parties ahead of national elections, analysts say.
“Certainly regional election results will influence the results for political parties in next year’s elections,” political expert Sirodjudin Abbas told BenarNews.
Three provinces –West Java, Central Java, and East Java – are expected to generate the most votes in Wednesday’s elections. West Java tops the list with 31.7 million voters, followed by East Java (30.1 million) and Central Java (27 million).
Wednesday’s polling completes a cycle of local elections, with previous instalments in 2015 and 2017, and clears the way for national elections on April 17 next year, when Indonesians will vote for president and their representatives in the national legislature. Presidential candidates must register by August; campaigning starts in late September.
More than 186 million Indonesians are eligible to cast votes in the 2019 presidential election, with one declared candidate so far – Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), who was the losing candidate in the 2014 election.
President Joko Widodo is widely expected to seek a second five-year term. But none of Indonesia’s 20 currently registered parties meets the threshold of 112 seats in parliament to nominate a candidate on its own, so both candidates need allies.
“A political party’s solidity and ability will be put to the test this year. This will be a warmup for the legislative and presidential elections,” said Sirodjudin who also serves as program director of Saiful Mudjani Research and Consulting (SMRC).
Ray Rangkuti, a political expert from election watchdog Lingkar Madani, said voters in North Sumatra and South Sulawesi would also play a key role in next year’s elections.
“Potential voters in both provinces are considerable. The parties even sent representatives from headquarters” to boost campaigning, Ray told BenarNews.
Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the running mate of former Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama in the 2017 election, is a candidate for governor of North Sumatra. Djarot earlier served as mayor of Blitar, East Java, then as deputy governor of Jakarta.
“I moved to North Sumatra to do jihad against corruption, poverty, ignorance, and drug abuse,” the Indonesian media outlet Okezone quoted Djarot as saying.
Meanwhile, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democratic Party has yet to declare its political alliance, staged a press conference over the weekend to question whether Indonesian security forces were maintaining professional neutrality in the regional elections.
“I have heard stories about a number of police, military, and intelligence personnel taking sides ahead of the elections. They’re not a hoax,” the former president told members of the press in Bogor, West Java, without giving concrete details.
His son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, was a contender for Jakarta governor in 2017 but lost in a first round of voting after a brutal race marked by massive rallies to demand the arrest of the non-Muslim incumbent, Ahok, who was ultimately tried and convicted of blasphemy.
Komarudin Watubun, chairman of Jokowi’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), dismissed the allegations.
“SBY’s era of political melodrama is over and out of date,” he said, using a popular shorthand for the former leader.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s polls, Indonesian police have been on alert for militant groups potentially targeting the elections, after a spate of terrorist violence last month that included suicide bombings at three churches and a police station in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya.
A message has circulated on extremist networks calling for attacks on polling stations, CNN Indonesian quoted Riau police chief Nandang as saying. The Sumatran province was the site of a terror attack in mid-May that saw four suspects and one policemen killed at provincial police headquarters.
On Saturday, police shot dead two terror suspects and arrested another in West Java. The anti-terror squad Densus 88 also killed a terror suspect in Subang, West Java, on Friday and found an explosive device in the suspect’s bag, authorities said.
National Police spokesman Mohammad Iqbal said the suspects were part of the Islamic State-linked terror group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and intended to disrupt local elections.
“We continue to anticipate any threat and maintain security ahead of the elections. The arrests were a precautionary measure to secure the elections,” Iqbal told BenarNews.
On Monday, National Police Chief Tito Karnavian told reporters in Jakarta that the Densus 88 had arrested 13 suspected militants who were allegedly planning to carry out attacks ahead of regional elections. He did not elaborate on where and when the arrests took place.
Although presidential campaigning does not officially start until late September, Prabowo, the Gerindra candidate, made an unprecedented fundraising appeal to his supporters via Facebook late last week.
The former special forces (Kopassus) commander said he had prepared a bank account ready to receive donations from supporters.
“It doesn’t matter how much you can contribute. If you, let’s say, donate 5,000 rupiah, we thank you. If you can help more –10,000 or 20,000 rupiah – it will be helpful,” Prabowo said.
“Think about it, with 20,000 rupiah you can buy a pack of cigarettes and two packs of instant noodles. With the amount of money, you have contributed in the fight to change the nation’s future,” he said.
The prospect of a rematch between old rivals got a gust of interest earlier this month when 74-year-old Amien Rais, a hero of the movement that toppled dictator Suharto 20 years ago, said he was thinking of entering the race, inspired by Mahathir Mohamad’s victory in Malaysia last month.
Other potential presidential candidates include former Armed Forces chief Gatot Nurmantyo and Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan.
Rina Chadijah in Jakarta and Kusumasari Ayuningtyas in Central Java contributed to this report.