An Indonesian casts his ballot during voting in elections at a polling station in Gowa, South Sulawesi in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Yusuf Ahmad
An Indonesian casts his ballot during voting in elections at a polling station in Gowa, South Sulawesi in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Yusuf Ahmad

All politics is local, as the saying goes. But it takes only a quick look at the jostling that has gone on over the selection of candidates for June’s regional elections to understand just how local Indonesia’s political party system is after 18 years of democratic rule.

With all eyes on the 2019 legislative and presidential elections, both to be held on the same day for the first time, the local polls in 17 provinces and 154 districts and cities have become a competition among the parties to position themselves for the more serious business ahead.

Most attention will focus on East, Central and West Java, the country’s three most populous provinces, which together account for more than half of the country’s 185 million registered voters and have always held the key to the outcome of national elections.

Of course, there is some method to the confusion. Worried about his rivals playing the Islamic card that brought down former Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, now languishing in prison on blasphemy charges, Widodo appears anxious to strengthen his alliances with the parties that identify in one way or another with Muslim values.

Analysts believe the president wants a prominent Muslim figure as his 2019 running mate, despite pressure from Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri to choose either her daughter, human development minister Puan Maharani, or her close confidante, National Intelligence Agency director Budi Gunawan.

Even if he was willing to bend to her wishes, which in Puan’s case is designed to keep alive the fast-fading heritage of Megawati’s father, founding president Sukarno, neither would appear to add value to the ticket. In fact, they could well be a negative.

Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in a 2015 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu 

Holding simultaneous elections next year presents its challenges, but Widodo is helped by a recent Constitutional Court decision upholding the legal stipulation that a party or coalition of parties must have 20% of parliamentary seats or 25% of the popular vote to nominate a presidential candidate.

Even though it is an expired mandate, the threshold will be controversially based on the results of the 2014 national elections, which may anger the smaller parties, but ensures that coalitions will have to be formed before rather than after the elections.

Back in 2005, a study of comparative election systems showed that only 12% of Indonesians professed loyalty to a particular party, compared to 57% in the United States and 84% in Australia. More than a decade later, that does not appear to have changed.

With the country’s 10 parties still devoid of genuine policy platforms or anything else to help educate voters in the merits of democracy, there is no escaping the way Indonesian elections have become an arena for disparate political interests.

Take the East Java gubernatorial race where deputy governor Saifullah Yusuf, 53, is supported by PDI-P, ruling coalition partner National Awakening Party (PKB) as well as the opposition Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) and Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity (PKS) parties.

A campaign poster of Indonesia’s then presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his running mate Yusuf Kalla after a rally in Cirebon, Indonesia, June 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Saifullah’s rival candidate, former social affairs minister Kofifah Parawansa, 52, and running mate Emil Dardak, 33, a Japan-educated doctoral graduate and chief of coastal Trenggalek district, have the backing of five of PDI-P’s six ruling coalition allies.

But Yusuf, former head of the youth wing of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), shares the ticket with Megawati’s niece, Puti Guntur Sukarno, 46, even if she has so far had little help from her aunt in her career as a two-term parliamentarian.

To complete the confusion, both candidates are members of PKB, founded by the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, whose daughter, Yenny Wahid, dropped out of the race to avoid splitting the party vote any further. Yenny’s husband belongs to Gerindra, led by presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto.

Favored among the crowded four-candidate field in the West Java race is Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, who ran as an independent in 2013, later allied himself with PKS and is now supported by four government parties — PKB, National Democrat (Nasdem), United Development (PPP) and People’s Conscience (Hanura).

Oppositionists Gerindra and PKS have got behind retired general and defense strategist Sudrajat, a one-time ambassador to China and chief executive of fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s Susi Air, the world’s largest small-plane airline.

Presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto (C) in July 25, 2014. Photo: AFP/Stringer 

PDI-P has plumped for one of its own, ex-army general Tubugas Hasanuddin, 65, an aide to two previous presidents and vice-chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs commission, who may only be there to fly the party flag.

The fourth pair, comprising deputy governor Deddy Mizwar, 62, an actor and film producer, and long-serving Purwakarta district chief Dedi Mulyadi, 46, is supported by Golkar and ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s neutralist Democrat Party.

Kamil, 45, a US-trained architect with carefully-cultivated Muslim credentials, earned a reputation as an innovator for turning Bandung into a so-called “smart city,” using an apps-based system to manage its transport and waste disposal.

He is known to be close to Widodo, who after performing poorly in West Java in 2014, is keen to make a strong comeback in 2019 in a province where 97% of the 46 million-strong population is Muslim, 10% higher than the national average.

Surrounding Jakarta on two sides, the northern half of West Java is home to religiously-moderate Sundanese constituents, but the south encompasses hard-line Islamic strongholds that once sheltered the rebel Darul Islam movement.

Kamil could get the nod as Widodo’s running mate if he performs well, given the support he is receiving from both PKB and PPP, the two parties which represent the moderate and conservative wings of the 35-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017.  Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

In the other key battleground of Central Java, PDI-P governor Ganjar Pranowo, 49, is sweating on unfolding events in Jakarta, where the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) has implicated him in the 2009 electronic identity card scandal while he was deputy chairman of Parliament’s legal commission.

Among the five parties supporting Pranowo are the Democrats, unusual when Megawati, still bitter over his perceived betrayal in the 2004 presidential election, won’t be seen in the same town, let alone the same room as party leader Yudhoyono.

With the country’s 10 parties still devoid of genuine policy platforms or anything else to help educate voters in the merits of democracy, there is no escaping the way Indonesian elections have become an arena for disparate political interests

Pranowo’s rival, graft fighter Sudirman Said, 54, backed by Gerindra, PKS, PPP and the National Mandate (PAN), has no such distractions, looking to extract revenge for being dumped from the mines and energy portfolio in 2016 after falling afoul of vested interests.

Said is running alongside four-term PKB legislator Ida Fauziyah, 48, chairman of Parliament’s religious affairs commission and a leading figure in NU, whose one handicap may be that she comes from neighboring East Java.

But Pranowo’s indictment seems his only chance. For decades now, PDI-P has dominated wide swathes of Central Java, apart from the northern coast, where Said was born and where PKB controls three of the province’s 11 constituencies.

Even then, Pranowo’s formal nomination means he would remain on the ballot and his PPP running mate, Taj Yasmin, 34, the liberal-minded son of a prominent Central Java cleric, would become governor in the event of the pair coming out on top.