WITH Malaysia anticipating the 14th General Election next month, Indonesia is also gearing up towards this ritual of democracy that would determine the nation’s future.

Indonesia’s presidential post will once again be contested in the 2019 Presidential Election. We can expect the incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to run in the race, despite the mixed record he had registered since assuming the post in 2014.

Some of the issues that stand in between Jokowi and his second term are highlighted below.

The numbers are in Jokowi’s favour, at least, for now. Various surveys since last year have consistently placed Jokowi as the most favoured candidate to carry the mandate. A poll conducted by the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) last December, for instance, recorded that 53.8 per cent of the respondents would vote for Jokowi out of a pool of over 30 candidates. PolcoMM Institute’s findings, revealed last month, also shared a similar trend, although with a slightly lesser figure (at 49.08 per cent of total votes).

This advantage may not be sustainable, however, as rivals are expected to pose challenges. Currently, former hopeful Prabowo Subianto and former Commander of the National Armed Forces (TNI) Gatot Nurmantyo are dominating public discussion as possible opposition in the upcoming presidential race.

As challengers, both have popularised provocative narratives that cast dabbles on Jokowi’s leadership. These range from insurmountable public debt and the disintegration of Indonesia in 2030 (Prabowo) to the “resurgence” of communism and the incompatibility between Pancasila and democracy (Gatot).

The bombastic language of such narratives should not come as a surprise. After all, Prabowo and Gatot need quick and effective measures if they are to wrest public support away from Jokowi ahead of the voting in April 2019. Their respective electability ratings in the aforementioned surveys further necessitated this, as both scored far below Jokowi. If both continued campaigning in this fashion, however, Jokowi would be forced to engage in a battle of popularity that may involve responding to these issues, regardless of their validity.

This was already evident when Jokowi delivered a fiery speech on April 7, in Bogor, seen as a counterattack to the latest bouts of criticism targeting his administration. This was unlike his traditional cool and gentle manner of communication. Notwithstanding, Jokowi must tread carefully on this thin ice as missteps could either cost him or turn him into another individual that capitalises on public fear.

But, his predicament is not confined at the elite level. Like in Malaysia, the proliferation of fake news had also created political ripples in Indonesia. Jokowi, in particular, is no stranger to the menace of fake news aiming to undermine his image among the public.

Jokowi has been at the receiving end of fake news since as early as 2014, if not earlier. During his first run for presidency, rumours circulated on social media about Jokowi’s personal identity, portraying him as a member of the Shia sect, of Chinese descent or a communist.

Jokowi demonstrated his resilience against such salvos of black campaign by emerging as the victor, although he may have lost a certain percentage of public support in the last leg of the race. This success does not guarantee, however, that he can effectively ward off the negative impact of fake news in the future, especially as the trend is expected to persist for the time being.

This is because two major election clusters, the 2018 Regional Election and the 2019 General Election, will continue to create demand for fake news as a political weapon, which has developed at an alarming rate recently. Even the disbandment of online syndicates Muslim Cyber Army and Saracen, which allegedly were influential in shaping the outcome of last year’s Jakarta election, could only inflict a temporary dent in the dissemination of fake news.

The vacuum left by these two could be easily filled by new groups that find the business potential of this industry. The fake news factory Saracen, for instance, charged tens of millions of rupiah to promote fake news in the digital space. The combined political and financial incentives, thus, are likely to sustain the fake news phenomenon in the domestic scene.

Having acknowledged this, Jokowi would do well to anticipate how the deployment and use of fake news would evolve to tarnish his camp this time around, especially as attacks on his did not produce a decisive positive outcome five years ago. Furthermore, some of Jokowi’s risky moves could hurl himself down a political ravine. Jokowi has demonstrated some authoritarian tendencies that hark back to during Suharto’s regime.

The most highlighted of which are the passing of two regulations that limit the freedom of association, and empower the legislative body to clamp down on its critics, as well as the planned (re)introduction of an article in the Criminal Code that outlaws criticism against the president.

The presence of these regulations in Indonesia’s democratic space is unfortunate. Although these could be interpreted as Jokowi’s attempt to consolidate his power ahead of the election, many regret the apparent shedding away of Indonesia’s commitment to liberal principles.

This could be tantamount to distributing political ammunition to civil society organisations, media and opposition to shoot back at his administration. Additionally, by allowing these regulations to pass under his watch, Jokowi might have alienated some of his voters that are made up of urbanites and educated individuals who venerate liberal values and have the ability to shape public discussion through their social media acumen.

Jokowi will tread a long and winding road in his effort to secure a re-election. His campaign might incorporate elements of defensive strategy against those who aim to revise the status quo, while also justifying his policies to those who are apprehensive towards him.

Regardless of how Jokowi will fashion his campaign, we can expect Indonesia to take a few steps back from regional and international affairs as the nation focuses its attention on domestic political contests.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on April 24, 2018.
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