Indonesia votes: What are the hot-button issues for the April 17 polls?

More than 192 million Indonesians will cast their ballots for their president and vice-president, as well as Members of Parliament and other officials, on April 17, 2019.
More than 192 million Indonesians will cast their ballots for their president and vice-president, as well as Members of Parliament and other officials, on April 17, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - With campaigning in full swing for the elections on April 17, candidates are working to address voters' main concerns.

More than 192 million will cast their ballots for their president and vice-president, as well as Members of Parliament and other officials.

About one third of those are first-time voters between the ages of 16 and 20.

The Straits Times takes a look at the hot-button issues:

ECONOMY AND BREAD-AND-BUTTER ISSUES

Worries over economic stability and costs of living look set to dominate this election.

The rupiah's freefall last year was precious fodder for incumbent president Joko Widodo's opponents, who have taken aim at his struggle to live up to the economic promises he made at the start of his term.

Mr Joko had after all promised 7 per cent economic growth and has vowed once more in his current campaign to help Indonesia achieve stronger economic growth. But the economy has so far fallen short of his promised figure, the rupiah saw a months-long slump and Indonesia's budget deficit went up.

While these come amid global challenges, such as rising trade tensions and the tightening of US monetary policy, the Joko administration's economic policies have come under fire from rival presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and the retired general's running-mate Sandiaga Uno.

 

Mr Prabowo and Mr Sandiaga expressed their grave concerns with the "endless weakening of the rupiah" weeks before campaigning even started.

"It's becoming a burden on our national economy (and) for the most vulnerable of Indonesians, who sooner or later will face rising prices on basic commodities like the goods they consume daily," the pair said.

"Our economy's fundamentals are weakening because there have been misguidances in the strategies used to propel our economic development. One such misguidance is the government's inability to extract the people's economic potential, which has led them to a path of greater reliance on imported rice, sugar, salt, garlic, etc," they added.

Mr Prabowo has pledged to lift poor Indonesians out of poverty, and "realise a just economy that brings prosperity to all our people, not just a few".

Among other things, he wants to create jobs, and promote industrialisation. He has also sounded the alarm repeatedly on costs of living - an issue that has struck a nerve among many Indonesians - and has suggested protectionist policies to cut down on what he believed was an over-reliance on food imports that has driven up prices.

Mr Joko will have to defend his economic track record and highlight his successes - such as upgrades to Indonesia's sovereign ratings, and the fact that Indonesia's growing foreign debt is due to is investments in infrastructure - or Mr Prabowo could easily tap into economic dissatisfaction to turn the tide.

RELIGIOSITY

Mr Joko's decision to pick Dr Ma'ruf Amin, a senior Islamic cleric, for his running-mate was seen as an attempt to burnish his own religious credentials - a political necessity with the 2019 polls taking place against a backdrop of growing religiosity and intolerance.

Conservative Muslims made their wrath known in the 2017 gubernatorial election, toppling once-popular Chinese-Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama after his alleged blasphemy against Islam.

 

And identity politics is likely here to stay. Ahead of the April polls, the same Islamist groups that brought about Mr Basuki's downfall have called on Muslims to vote against Mr Joko - one of Mr Basuki's allies - and the political parties that backed the former governor.

When Ms Grace Natalie, the Chinese-Christian leader of the Indonesian Solidarity Party, announced a plan to oppose any Shariah-based by-laws if elected, an opposition politician filed a police report against her.

Mr Prabowo is known for his close ties to conservative Muslims and has the support of Islamic parties such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the 212 movement, the group of participants involved in the rallies against Mr Basuki.

Meanwhile, conservative Muslims have long been an Achilles heel for Mr Jokowi, who in the 2014 campaign had to deal with accusations of not being Muslim enough. His choice of running-mate - one of the most senior Islamic figures in the country - was an attempt to shield himself from the same accusations this time around - but that may not be enough.

FAKE NEWS

With millennials making up nearly half of the voting roll, social media will be a crucial stage for the candidates in their bid to court voters.

But these online platforms have also become fertile grounds for misinformation in a country with high mobile penetration and dismal levels of digital literacy.

Past elections have been haunted by fake news and smear campaigns. The downfall of former Jakata governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama started after a doctored clip appearing to show him insulting the Quran went viral on social media, provoking the ire of Islamists.

And as campaigning heats up ahead of the April 17 polls, attempts at misinformation have already begun: false claims that Mr Sandiaga has called local athletes "physically weak" have been circulated online, and rumours that cropped up in the 2014 campaign of Mr Joko being a closet Christian and Communist sympathiser have been resurrected.

 

Then came attacks on the credibility of the election process itself, with claims spreading on social media that containers stuffed with cast ballots for April's elections were being stored in Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta.

The seven containers from China were said to have been filled with votes for Mr Joko - a claim that met with swift rebuttal from the president, who called it a hoax and pointed out that ballots had yet to be printed.

As the election looms, the Government is getting serious in the fight against fake news.

The communication ministry said in September it would host weekly fake news briefings and debunk hoaxes on a new dedicated website, StopHoax.id.

The authorities have also been shutting down social media accounts that have been spreading misinformation on the upcoming election, including allegations that about 10 million Chinese citizens were on the final register of voters for the polls.

Last year, they cracked down on members of the Muslim Cyber Army, which had taken to social media to attack the government and stoke religious extremism, spreading false claims about assaults on Islamic clerics.

Grassroots efforts have also been ramped up. Anti-hoax organisation Mafindo created WhatsApp Hoax Buster, a Google Chrome extension that allows users to instantly forward messages to clarify if they are false.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Human rights was one of the hotly-anticipated topics set for the first presidential debate on Jan 17 - but both Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo danced around the issue, with neither delving into the ways that unresolved cases of human rights violations could be put to rest. It is, after all, a sore spot for both.

Mr Prabowo has been dogged by accusations of human rights violations, such as ordering the abduction of democracy activists.

 
 
 
 

And while Mr Joko in his presidential run in 2014 had pledged to resolve past human rights injustices and lift restrictions on human rights investigators and foreign press visiting Papua, where conflict between the Indonesian military forces and pro-independence fighters continues to rage, he has been criticised for not making good on his promises.

Instead, the protection of human rights have regressed under President Joko, say some human rights advocacy groups.

He has, for instance, refused to allow the United Nation's human rights chief to visit Papua. And non-government organisation Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence said Indonesia has, during Mr Joko's term, gone backwards on a range of human rights issues, from the use of the death penalty to disability rights and the persecution of indigenous peoples and minorities.

The company he keeps has been criticised too: Mr Joko's pick for security minister was controversial former general Wiranto, who was indicted by the United Nations for human rights abuses during the 24-year occupation of East Timor.

"President Jokowi is a president who prioritises economic development over all other agendas. The human rights agenda is not considered important, and has been sidelined," said Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid.