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Jokowi approval rating survives protests and inequality

FTCR data show Indonesian leader's popularity rising despite weak political outlook

  • The approval rating of Indonesia President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, has improved since the start of his tenure despite rising religious tensions that put him at loggerheads with conservative Muslims.
  • Jokowi's approval is lowest for his efforts at poverty reduction, an issue that critics have highlighted and conflated with the economic dominance of Chinese Indonesians.
  • Our survey found that Prabowo Subianto, the candidate Jokowi defeated in the 2014 presidential election, remains his biggest potential rival for the 2019 presidential election.

President Joko Widodo's approval rating has risen in the past nine months, even as faith in Indonesia's political future weakened following a divisive gubernatorial election in Jakarta early this year, according to quarterly surveys by FT Confidential Research.

FTCR's Political Sentiment Index (PSI) reached its lowest point of 59 in the fourth quarter of 2016 (see chart), when hundreds of thousands of Muslims staged three rallies against then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, for alleged blasphemous remarks against Islam. The protesters demanded that Ahok, a Christian Chinese-Indonesian, be tried for blasphemy and step down from office. Some of the protesters directed their anger towards Jokowi, demanding his resignation for perceived protection of Ahok from prosecution.

The Index improved to 63.5 in the first quarter of 2017, on expectations that anti-Ahok protests would subside after the first round of gubernatorial elections in February.

However, Ahok lost the run-off election in April and was found guilty of blasphemy by a Jakarta court in May and given a two-year prison sentence, whereupon expectations of lasting political instability set in. The PSI dropped to 59.6 in the second quarter of 2017, its second lowest reading since we created the index four years ago.

Strength to endure

Despite the reduced optimism over politics, Jokowi's supporters have stood by the president. His approval rating climbed from 39.7 per cent of our respondents in the third quarter of 2016 to 52.9 per cent in the fourth quarter, even as protests against his administration and Ahok exploded. It reached the highest reading on record in the first quarter of 2017 at 54.2 per cent, before dipping slightly to 53.7 per cent (see chart).

The sharp rise in Jokowi's approval rating at the end of 2016 came from people who had previously held a neutral view of the president. These were not hardcore Jokowi supporters or conservative Muslims, but probably represent voters in the middle-ground who back his secular-nationalist outlook.

We believe the support is also sustained by the government's infrastructure progress, attributed to Jokowi's leadership. We asked respondents how they rate his two-year performance based on eight areas of development and found infrastructure receiving the highest approval with 65 per cent, followed by healthcare at 57.6 per cent.

We don't think the president will meet his ambitious targets, such as those for power plant and toll road construction, but the public appears to appreciate a pace of progress not seen since the 1980s and the government of President Suharto.

On the flipside, political stability and poverty reduction are the two areas where Jokowi scores lowest in our survey. Criticism over the widening gap between rich and poor has become a common theme of sermons in certain mosques, and videos of clerics blaming Chinese-Indonesian tycoons and Jokowi have gone viral. The president's opponents attack him for courting investment from China, the perceived economic dominance of Chinese-Indonesians and increasing income inequality, linking the three issues together. Although 2016 figures from the Indonesian Statistics Agency show a slight decrease in inequality, as measured by the Gini index, Indonesia has become more unequal since 2008.

Race and Inequality

During the 2014 presidential election, Jokowi was the subject of an unsuccessful attempt by supporters of his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, to portray him as a Chinese-Indonesian, associating him with an ethnic group that is often viewed with suspicion for its perceived economic dominance. Mr Subianto, who leads the opposition coalition, ranked first by a considerable margin in our survey looking ahead to the 2019 presidential race in which we listed 30 names and asked urban Indonesians who they considered to have the strongest chance to rival Jokowi (see chart).

Surprisingly, Ahok is ranked second despite the fact that he is disqualified from standing for the presidency because of his criminal conviction. Under Indonesian law, an individual who has been convicted of a crime that carries a maximum five-year sentence or more cannot run for president. Although Ahok was sentenced to two years, his blasphemy conviction carries a maximum five-year jail term.

Armed Forces Chief General Gatot Nurmantyo came third, his view that Indonesia faces external threats resonating with the electorate. In his speeches, Gen Nurmantyo often speaks of "proxy wars" in which unnamed foreign powers seek to weaken Indonesia through NGOs that promote "foreign values" such as communism, drug abuse and LGBT lifestyles. In a speech in May to leaders of the Golkar Party, the second largest party in parliament, he warned that the influx of migrants, particularly from China, may threaten Indonesia in the same way that Malays have been sidelined in Singapore.

The mayor of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, who ranked fourth, is tipped by local polls as frontrunner to become governor of West Java, a populous province that borders Jakarta. Mr Kamil, a Sunni Muslim, is campaigning on his record as a successful mayor but has been targeted on social media for his perceived preference for minority groups at the expense of Muslims. There is a precedent in Indonesia for a latecomer to enter the presidential race (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 and Jokowi in 2014) and emerge triumphant. However, if Kamil were to emerge as a dark horse, he would first have to win the West Java election next year.

Media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, ranked fifth in our survey, is the only business partner of the Trump family in Indonesia and has openly declared his ambition to become president. Like Ahok, Mr Tanoesoedibjo is an ethnic Chinese and a Christian. He has formed his own political party, the Perindo party, which is unlikely to grow big enough for him to have a realistic chance of becoming president in 2019.

Jokowi's low score for poverty reduction, and its associated issue of income inequality, will probably be used by his challengers in 2019. Jokowi and the leading five candidates have either used or been targeted in campaigns linking poverty and inequality with race and religion to gain political advantage. There are already widespread social media debates and media articles on these issues, and they will intensify as the presidential election nears.

This article was first published on July 25 by FT Confidential Research.

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and Southeast Asia. A team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.

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