Indonesia's previous political phase, like the tenure of its dominant figure, current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was defined by a primal geopolitical struggle for order, stability and national unity in the aftermath of several years of political fragmentation, economic disorder and pent-up regional separatist tendencies. It was also characterized by a decadelong economic boom fueled largely by exports of energy, raw materials and low-end goods to the manufacturing powerhouses of East and South Asia.
Recent changes in Indonesia's external environment — notably, China's economic transition and slowdown and the global diffusion of manufacturing activity they have spurred
— are shifting the way the archipelago operates. In the coming years, Indonesia has little choice but to move toward an economic model less dependent on raw material extraction and exports and more reliant on higher value-added manufacturing as well as on processing and refining — both for export and domestic consumption — the resources it now sells raw. Building the infrastructure necessary for this transition, and more important, doing so in time to reap the full benefits of the decline of lower-end manufacturing in China, will require reversing the effects of 15 years of political decentralization
. More fundamentally, it will require overcoming the archipelago's inherent geographic challenges
to build a more consolidated, efficient and effective central government. The significance of this year's elections lies in this: Whoever wins in 2014 will be the face of and guide for this process for the next five to 10 years, whether or not it succeeds.
The Legislative Elections
Of the 19,699 national, provincial and local offices up for grabs April 9, the 560 belonging to the People's Representative Council, the lower and main body of Indonesia's parliament, carry by far the most weight. By Indonesian law, only parties or coalitions that win at least 25 percent of the national vote across all legislative elections or 20 percent of the vote for the People's Representative Council can field a presidential candidate. In theory, this would mean that a single party that achieves 25 percent of the vote could field a presidential and vice presidential ticket without first forming a coalition (it could nominate both candidates from the same party); otherwise, parties must form coalitions to field full presidential tickets. Historically, tickets have featured presidents and vice presidents from different parties within the same ad hoc electoral coalition.
The outcome of the April 9 elections will thus have a direct impact on the presidential race, drawing the election's core battle lines by determining the shape of interparty coalitions and their presidential tickets. This in many ways differentiates Indonesia's electoral system from those of other democracies, such as the United States, in which presidential-vice presidential tickets come from a single party and are decided, in practice if not always formally, many months before the election date. In Indonesia, only when the legislative elections are over and the coalitions that determine presidential and vice presidential tickets are formed will the presidential race begin in full, and the shape of coalitions that emerge from the legislative elections can, in turn, significantly affect a candidate's chances in the presidential election.
The importance of this year's legislative elections derives in part from their role as a measure of public support for the candidacy of Joko Widodo (known colloquially in Indonesia as "Jokowi"), whose rise to national-level politics after one term as mayor of the Central Javanese town of Surakarta and just two years as governor of Jakarta has transformed the 2014 electoral landscape and helped resuscitate his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, one of Indonesia's oldest and most powerful institutional parties. PDI-P had seen its popularity and presence in parliament wane over the years, but by all accounts, Jokowi is the man to beat in the July elections. In one recent election poll, he received 44.6 percent of the vote, more than four times what the next most popular candidate, Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), received. This puts Jokowi within reach of an outright majority in the July 9 elections.
Perhaps more critical than Jokowi's own popularity and presidential fortunes is the potential impact of his candidacy on PDI-P's prospects in the legislative elections. Since March 13, the day before Jokowi announced his candidacy, voter approval ratings for PDI-P in the legislative elections have surged 10 percent, from 34 to 44 percent, while those of its top two competitors, Golkar and Gerindra, have fallen from 22 to 17 percent and from 17 to 13 percent, respectively. If this trend holds through April 9, PDI-P could be in a position to clench an outright majority in the legislative elections, a first for post-Suharto Indonesia.
Even if PDI-P pulls less than 50 percent of the vote, it will almost certainly outperform its competitors and could win enough votes to eschew a coalition with one of the other major parties, instead opting for a tight coalition with smaller parties less likely to challenge or interfere with its wishes. It seems this is PDI-P's intent, judging by recent remarks from official and unofficial spokesmen.
A Jokowi presidency with majority or near-majority PDI-P representation in parliament would open the way for a potentially significant shift away from the broad, multiparty coalitions that have characterized previous governments and toward a more consolidated model centered on two or three core parties — that is, a more traditional ruling-opposition party structure. (Indonesians increasingly fault the old model for corruption, inefficiency and a lack of clear and decisive political vision.)
No matter how well PDI-P and Jokowi perform, a wholesale shift away from coalition politics is highly unlikely this year. The preference for forming coalitions is deeply engrained in the system and reflects the extreme diversity of interests across Indonesia's political spectrum. Moreover, with three months to go before presidential elections, there is ample time for further swings in voter sentiment and the electoral landscape, whether for or against Jokowi and PDI-P. In fact, the better PDI-P performs on April 9, the more heated other parties' attacks on Jokowi will become, especially if the PDI-P chairwoman, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, chooses to field a single-party presidential ticket, as has recently been suggested by several party insiders. Jokowi may be highly popular, but he is by no means impervious to attack.
Where Electoral Politics Meets Geopolitics
The April elections do not take place in a vacuum. Beyond the bubble of the campaigns, personalities and coalitions lies reality: The basic structures of Indonesian geopolitics are moving, urged on by forces beyond the archipelago's control and certainly beyond the control of its next president, whoever that may be. The shift of lower-end export-oriented manufacturing away from coastal China — which is part of the eclipse of the global (and especially East Asian) resources boom, of which Indonesia was a key beneficiary — is creating a new economic reality to which countries such as Indonesia must now adapt.
With a huge and growing working-age population, abundant natural resources and easy access to critical sea lanes, Indonesia stands to benefit immensely from this process. But to fully benefit, it will need a government able to capitalize on the country's advantages to attract high-quality foreign investment, and one equally determined to overcome constraints such as endemic corruption, political decentralization and poor intraregional infrastructure connectivity. A strong victory for PDI-P and Jokowi in April and June could create the conditions for such a government. Whether that government will come about is another question.