January 16, 2018 11:00 am JST

Jokowi's popularity strong ahead of Indonesian elections

Performance key to president's success, FTCR survey finds

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is greeted by Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong on April 30, 2017. So far, the rise of Islamist politics has not hurt his popularity.

Despite disappointing third-quarter gross domestic product growth and slowing consumption in Indonesia over the past year, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo continues to enjoy strong approval, the latest survey from FT Confidential Research found.

The president's approval rating stood at 56.4% in December, nearly level with his highest result in September 2017 and more than double the level at the start of his presidential term. Jokowi's popularity has been growing steadily, suggesting he has won hearts and minds despite lingering challenges facing the economy and the rise of identity politics in Indonesia.

Indonesia saw its most divisive regional election last year when Jakarta's then-governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, lost office after being accused of committing blasphemy against Islam. For many, the events that led to Basuki's defeat, and later his two-year prison term, reaffirmed the notion that the identity politics that germinated during the presidential election in 2014 had not gone away. During that election, Jokowi's opponents portrayed him as anti-Islam and insinuated his family had links to communism, a banned ideology in Indonesia. Jokowi is a Muslim but is considered a secular nationalist in a country where voters are broadly divided into supporters of Islamic and nationalist parties.

Rising tension

Political tensions are expected to escalate again this year as Indonesia holds regional elections on June 27 in 171 provinces, districts and mayoralties. Our Political Sentiment Index, which gauges public perception of Indonesia's political outlook for the next six months, improved to 62.2 in the fourth quarter of 2017 from 61.4 previously. Historically, however, the PSI has generally been on a downward trajectory since the second quarter of 2016 and reached its lowest level at the end of that year, when the blasphemy accusation against Purnama flared up.

The regional elections matter for Jokowi's ruling coalition because they set the stage for the presidential and legislative elections in April 2019. Chief among their concerns is the vote for the next governor of West Java, a province with the largest population and economy in Indonesia. It is also among the few where Jokowi's opponent in the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, won more votes than he did.

Local polls suggest Ridwan Kamil, the mayor of West Java's capital Bandung, is front-runner for the governorship. An award-winning architect who has 7.5 million Instagram followers, he is popular among millennials. Running as an independent, he has welcomed support from the NasDem party, a minor member of the governing coalition, but has so far remained reluctant to accept the endorsement of Jokowi's political party, the secular-nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Sources familiar with the mayor's campaign told FTCR that Muslim clerics and heads of influential Islamic madrassas in West Java have advised Kamil not to partner with the PDI-P. To accept the party's endorsement and the formidable political machinery it provides would risk alienating his conservative Muslim backers, who are wary of the PDI-P's secular ideology.

Political Islam

Our survey highlights the increasing prominence of religious sentiment in Indonesian politics. Almost two-thirds of respondents think Indonesian Muslims are becoming more conservative, something parties and politically active clerics will attempt to capitalize on. Almost 60% also say Indonesia's judicial system should incorporate Sharia law.

There are, however, encouraging findings for secular Indonesians. About 90% of respondents believe Pancasila, the country's pluralistic, foundational ideology, is consistent with Islamic values. The ideology guarantees religious freedom and has "Unity in Diversity" as its motto. This finding negates fears that rising political Islam could gradually lead to Indonesia becoming an Islamic republic.

Additionally, although more than half of respondents welcome the adoption of Sharia, more than three quarters said it must be interpreted according to modern times. Our survey is consistent with findings from academic studies that show a large majority of Indonesian Muslims reject what they consider extreme punishments such as amputation and stoning.

Finally, our survey shows that a majority of Indonesians -- who are 88% Muslim, according to the 2010 census -- are unconvinced by accusations by Jokowi's opponents that he is anti-Islam. When asked whether his administration undermined Islamic values, 65% of our respondents disagreed.

However, that means there is a sizable minority Jokowi cannot ignore, underlining the need for him to counter campaigns that exploit religious sentiment. He faces his biggest challenge in the eight provinces where our survey showed his approval rating stood at about 50% or below, of which West Java is the most notable.

In 2014, Prabowo won in five of these provinces and he remains Jokowi's most likely challenger in 2019. In the other three, Lampung, East Kalimantan and South Sulawesi, Jokowi has lost support after animosity toward Purnama spread throughout the country. The president was accused at the time of blocking the prosecution of Purnama for his alleged blasphemy.

We think identity politics will continue to influence Indonesian elections beyond the presidential race in 2019. However, our survey showed most Indonesian Muslims will not easily be swayed by politicians or religious leaders who play the Islam card. Jokowi's re-election will be determined largely by voters' perception of his performance. As we highlighted in our previous report, the president scored highly on issues such as infrastructure development, health care, education and corruption. However, he must also find an effective strategy to counter the perception held by a significant minority that his administration undermines Islamic values.

This article was first published 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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