Getting down to business

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Over the past week there has been plenty of commentary about Indonesia’s presidential candidates’ choices for their running mates.  Editorials by the mainstream press, whose owners enjoy cozy relations with the Jokowi administration, praised the incumbent’s selection of the elderly Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Ma’ruf Amin.   One news daily opined Amin is the ‘ulema’s ulema’; an editorial gave Amin rock star status by comparing him to America’s famous Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell.  Enthusiasts believe the ultra-conservative Amin will be able to use his position as a supreme leader for the Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as a means of energizing its base of 40 million members to support Jokowi in next April’s presidential election.   Finally, the Jakarta Post, an English daily newspaper owned by a local businessman who has benefitted from his ties with the president, waxed eloquent that Amin will be ‘a key figure to blunt any attack from the hard right and stem possible discontent from the wider Muslim population’.

On the contrary, we would argue Amin will make little difference for Jokowi’s candidacy.

Facts speak louder than words, and voter behavior in past elections has been consistent in one aspect: party or organizational affiliations of presidential candidates, more so vice-presidential candidates, are a poor predictor of electoral choices.   Amin’s connections with the MUI and NU might be appealing for some fringe voters with a propensity for identity politics, but the overwhelming majority of voters will, in the final analysis, make a simple pragmatic calculation by choosing the presidential candidate they believe will make a positive difference for their welfare.

Jokowi’s supporters in the media are wrong, as well, about the need for Amin as a running mate whom they believe would protect the president from verbal attacks coming from hard-right Islamists.

Jokowi’s choice of Amin was driven by his belief the opposition will use the religion card in an attempt to undermine his religious credentials.   The president is wrong.  Prabowo Subianto has little need to play sectarian politics in order to win over the hearts and minds of voters.  Religiosity is a minor factor in voters’ minds.  Most important is the state of the economy and the questions about Jokowi’s performance in improving the average Indonesian’s welfare.

When it comes to basic economics, there is plenty of evidence Jokowi has fared poorly.  Foreign investors have been spooked by the unfriendly mix of policies driving  ‘Jokowinomics’, leading to an exodus for more friendly emerging markets such as Vietnam.  Economic growth rates of five percent have been far below Indonesia’s potential and have led to sluggish investment and consumer spending.   The wealth gap between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s’ has widened, and higher prices for basic necessities—which is poorly captured in government inflation estimates—is a major reason voters will pause before going to the polling stations next April and pose the basic question, ‘Am I better off today than five years ago”?  For many, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’.

Prabowo Subianto’s choice of Sandiago Uno for his running mate  was largely a result of his understanding that voters care most about these ‘bread and butter’ issues.  Ideas matter in politics, and Uno, a successful businessman with a keen grasp on economics, will prove to be an excellent thought partner for debates against Jokowi and Amin on the policy areas of most importance to the electorate—how to restore investor confidence and generate more employment opportunities, implementing the right policies to spark higher growth rates, and how to use that greater wealth to bring about greater distributive justice.

Other important assets that Uno brings with him for the Prabowo campaign is his youth, worldliness and business savvy, all of which puts him in striking contrast with the septuagenarian Amin.   When voters assess the vice-presidential candidates and how they add or subtract to the value of a ticket, they will view Uno as a man with little ideological baggage.  Younger voters—which make up a majority of the electorate—will identify with Uno as one of their own and a candidate that shares their values, and, has the same aspirations for Indonesia’s future.

We are sure Indonesia’s co-opted mainstream media will continue with their predictions Jokowi will easily win next year’s elections.  What they have forgotten is the old political adage, “it’s the economy, stupid”.    Indonesian voters are smart, and certainly smart enough to realize Jokowi has not delivered on his promises of a strong economy—it is for that reason Jokowi will find winning a second term will be far from easy.