Jeremy Menchik on Indonesia Elections

Jeremy Menchik is Assistant Professor in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. His first book, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2016) explains the meaning of tolerance to the world’s largest Islamic organizations and was the co-winner of the 2017 International Studies Association award for the best book on religion and international relations. His research has appeared in the academic journals Comparative Studies in Society and History, Comparative Politics,International Studies Review, Asian Studies Review, South East Asia Research, Politics and Religion as well as in edited volumes and popular media such as the New York Review of Books and The New York Times.

SiKe Wang CMC'21 interviewed Jeremy Menchik on April, 2019. 

What makes this year’s presidential election in Indonesia unique and important in terms of the country’s consolidation of its young democracy?

This was an important election for all the wrong reasons. Jokowi’s first term has seen a downturn in the quality of Indonesian democracy including weakening of human rights, an increasing in the influence of Islamist movements, and stagnation in the campaign against corruption. So the election is important as an indicator of the country’s democratic deconsolidation.


Last year, President Joko Widodo chose Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate for the general election this April to pacify radical Islamic groups in the nation. However, in return, former supporters also accused Joko of selling himself out to ultra-conservative political elements. Do you think he will achieve a balance, or will his action ultimately backfire and hurt his chance of winning the election?

Jokowi has achieved a good balance in terms of gaining support from both Muslims and non-Muslim voters. The longer-term worry is what is going to happen when Ma'ruf Amin is in the vice presidential palace. Ma'ruf Amin has a history of marginalizing minorities and has been influential in the campaigns of exclusion and intolerance toward minority Muslims and local LGBTQ groups. He has shown no willingness or desire to change his former position of intolerance. I am worried that once he is in a position of great power, there will be serious negative consequences for religious tolerance in the country. So it’s not just the election that is important here; it is the aftermath of the election that I worry about. Ma'ruf Amin has said good things on the campaign trial, but longer term he has done the wrong things. I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t continue to do great harm to democracy and religious tolerance over the next five years.


In his 2014 campaign, Widodo had promised to raise GDP growth to 7 percent by the end of his first term. Until now, Indonesia’s growth is forecasted to be 5 percent. How would you assess Widodo’s performance in office for the past four years?

Indonesia has had strong and stable economic growth. That said, Jokowi has had much less success in other areas relating to policy. Specifically, he has been unable to significantly improve social welfare institutions. His policies on healthcare and the environment have been terrible, and Indonesia is a place where we are going to see the acute effects of climate change. Nor has his been seriously able to grapple with the problem of corruption or the respect for human rights.

Jokowi came to power as an outsider. He had advantages in terms of bringing fresh blood into Indonesian politics. But this has also been a disadvantage in terms of not being able to shift the distribution of power from behind the scenes. He has been relatively successful in managing the economy, but not as successful in areas like environment, social welfare, human rights and corruption.


Can you tell us something about President Joko Widodo’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto, such as his background, political philosophy, and base of support?

Prabowo Subianto is a former lieutenant general in the Indonesian military. He is a populist, a xenophobic nationalist, and a strong man very much in the mode of Donald Trump or Vladmir Putin. Prabowo appealed to strong nationalist ideals and a fear of foreigners in order to gain political supporters. He has also aligned with Islamic parties.  PKS and PAN backed him partially for financial reasons, because Sandiaga Uno paid them upwards of $35 million to get their support. They also liked Prabowo’s claim that he would defend Islamic leaders. His basis of support are people who think that the current democratic policies have gone too far towards liberalism and would prefer a kind of strong-man politics, similar to the supporters of Donald Trump.


Have the two presidential candidates attempted to attract young voters? How successful were their attempts to combat hoaxes and misinformation online?

Jokowi has tried to reach young voters through social media campaigns, and somewhat amusingly, through the use of holograms. He also put quite a bit of effort into combating hoaxes and fake news. As in a lot of open democracies, misinformation thrives in social media on Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. These giant technology companies are unwilling to police the content of their platforms, and as a result, we are seeing hate speech and misinformation thriving because they get a lot of clicks. It is not just a negative aspect of social media. It is baked into the algorithms. The companies care more about profit than the quality of discourse that is so essential to making democracy work.

So, to combat misinformation, Jokowi has put a lot of effort in combating hoaxes that target him, specifically. The trend is that politicians can’t take for granted that there will be accurate information about them in the public sphere. They have to actively control social media in order to combat and control misinformation.

In general, political science research on the impact of hoaxes and misinformation on voter behavior is still in its infancy. But we think that disinformation probably can move the needle when it confirms people’s already-held beliefs. That said, there’s a lot we don’t know about the power of misinformation on voters’ behavior.


How will the fact that the presidential and legislative elections will be held on the same day (April 17) affect their outcomes and the general political landscape of Indonesia?

Indonesia has a slightly unusual election system. The president is directly elected with the support of a coalition of parties, whereas on the local level, open-list proportional representation allows candidates to run both against other parties and against candidates from the same party. The effect is the weakening of the strength of any party. Personal appeals by the candidates to their constituency seem to be driving voter behavior more than ideological attachment to one party versus another. We are also seeing a de-linking of voter behavior at the local and the national level. Just because voters support Jokowi doesn’t mean they support PDIP, his political party, at the local level, because there might have been stronger candidates running for another party. So it’s not clear that Jokowi’s coat tails are particularly strong, and the same thing goes for Prabowo Subianto. At least, not as strong as they have been in the past, when there was a closed list proportional representation at the municipal level.

What will determine the outcome of the election?

The main factors that drive Indonesian voter behavior include clientelism, the strength of the economy, attachment to political parties, and the parties stance on religion. The Islamic verses nationalist divide is influential in voter behavior. Religious minorities are more likely to support PDID, whereas Muslims are more likely to support Islamic parties.

Big picture, the big, overriding factor is money. An estimated one-third of Indonesia voters will make their decision based on who they are paid to support. There is an extraordinarily high level of corruption in Indonesia in election, so money is the biggest driver of the outcome of the election. From what we can tell, Prabowo Subianto does not have the same level of resources in 2019 as he did in 2014. His get-out-to-vote apparatus seems to be weaker than it was 5 years ago. That’s why the spread between the two candidates are quite remarkable. This was not a nail-biter of an election.



SiKe Wang CMC'21Student Journalist
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