Jokowi bets on rural voters for Indonesia's election as discontent grows in cities

President Joko Widodo takes pictures with his supporters during his first campaign rally at a stadium in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, on March 24, 2019.
President Joko Widodo takes pictures with his supporters during his first campaign rally at a stadium in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, on March 24, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - For Siti Mutmainah, a government cash handout of 800,000 rupiah (S$76.50) every quarter has turned her family's life around, putting healthcare and education for her two children well within her reach.

Ms Mutmainah's family is one of the 10 million households - or just over 15 per cent of the country - benefiting from Indonesia's "family hope programme", known as PKH, first introduced in 2007 to end the cycle of poverty among the country's most vulnerable.

President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, almost doubled the programme in 2018 to cover an extra four million families - a move that's resonated throughout rural Indonesia and one he hopes will balance the entrenched disenchantment among urban voters.

The payment supplements Ms Mutmainah's husband's often unstable farm income - and now she's determined to give her vote to Mr Joko in the April 17 election.

"I no longer worry too much about saving money for my children's health and education because it has been funded by PKH," said Ms Mutmainah, from Sumber Dandang village in Central Java, who started receiving assistance in 2017. "Of course, I want this programme to continue, and my vote is for Jokowi's continuation."

Mr Joko, who is facing disillusionment among some urban voters amid stagnant economic growth and the inability to generate enough high-paying jobs, is counting on Ms Mutmainah and millions of other beneficiaries to boost his chances of re-election.

A second term for Mr Joko is likely to see more money being allotted to the poor and to villages, straining a state budget already hurt by sluggish tax collections and reliance on debt financing. For this support programme alone, the government allocated 34.4 trillion rupiah this year, up significantly from the 19 trillion rupiah in 2018 for the same number of families.

SOCIAL ASSISTANCE

The President is pitted against former military general Prabowo Subianto in a rematch of the 2014 election. While Mr Joko has centred his campaign on his government's achievements, Mr Prabowo has accused the President of failing to protect farmers' interests, and vowed to tackle economic inequalities in the world's fourth-most populous country.

 
 
 
 

Mr Joko, who's won praise for undertaking a US$350 billion (S$474 billion) infrastructure drive, has also showered billions of dollars on local governments to build everything from dams to solar lamps.

The social assistance programmes, which also include non-cash food assistance and cooking gas subsidies, will expand to 200.8 trillion rupiah this year. The transfer of funds to villages will be increased if he is re-elected, to 400 trillion rupiah from 257 trillion rupiah in first term, he said.

RURAL PUSH

The incumbent is leading Mr Prabowo by a double digit margin in most opinion polls. Still, Mr Prabowo has closed the gap in urban areas by 6 per cent in the last month, leaving Mr Joko with a narrow advantage of 51.5 per cent versus Mr Prabowo's 48.5 per cent, according to a Roy Morgan survey released this week.

Mr Joko leads strongly in rural areas such as Central Java, East Java and Northern Sumatra while Mr Prabowo is strongest in Jakarta, West Java, Southern Sumatra and the islands of Sulawesi and Kalimantan. Mr Joko is preferred by 63 per cent of the voters in rural areas, compared to 37 per cent support for Mr Prabowo, the poll found.

With the margin expected to narrow in the coming days, the President is expected to go all out to win over voters in the hinterlands.

LAND TITLES

Mr Joko is seeking to narrow the gap between his development goals and achievements through the social assistance programmes, said Ms Lana Soelistianingsih, an economist with PT Samuel Aset Manajemen.

"The real question is about the sustainability of such programmes," she said, noting Mr Joko was struggling to realise his promise to push down unemployment rate to 4 to 5 per cent and the poverty level to 7 to 8 per cent.

Mr Joko has sought to lure farmers - a key vote bloc - by distributing land certificates. Indonesia's land rules have been in place, unchanged, for six decades and allow the state to control all agrarian resources on behalf of the people. When Mr Joko came to power, he sought to reform those laws, and has since handed out ownership titles for 4.5 million hectares.

The plan was to complete land certification for 4.5 million hectares and redistribute another 4.5 million hectares - especially for poor farmers - over the last five years. The titles allow holders to access bank loans and will provide farmers with greater security in land disputes with big companies, especially in plantation and mining areas. In big cities like Jakarta, these certificates prevent those living in illegal settlements from being evicted to pave way for development.

With the unequal wealth distribution being a recurring theme in Mr Prabowo's campaign, conferring land ownership helps Mr Joko blunt the attack, said Mr Djayadi Hanan, executive director of Jakarta-based pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting.

"Land ownership has been a major issue for a lot of people," Mr Hanan said. "Such a programme can be directly felt by the people, especially the grassroots, and thus will positively affect the incumbent's electability."