A Guide to Indonesia’s Looming Election Season

(Bloomberg) -- With Indonesia’s April 17 election on the horizon, President Joko Widodo looks in a strong position to secure a second term. His only challenger in the the world’s third-biggest democracy (after India and the U.S.) will be Prabowo Subianto, the former general he bitterly sparred with in the previous poll in 2014. Subianto will highlight the Southeast Asian country’s recent economic woes, including a currency selloff and stagnant growth. But Widodo, known as Jokowi, has built a strong parliamentary base and remains widely popular in the nation of 262 million people.

1. What do the polls say?

Subianto has a lot of catching up to do. A poll of 1,200 voters in March gave Jokowi 60.6 percent support to Subianto’s 29 percent in a direct contest. An April poll showed Subianto’s support declining and Jokowi’s rising.

2. What’s the schedule?

While TV channels may project unofficial results on election day, the official count takes weeks and must be declared by May 22. Campaigning for both the presidential and parliamentary elections -- being held together for the first time -- begins Sept. 21. Indonesia’s seventh president will be inaugurated on Oct. 20, 2019.

3. Why is nobody else challenging Jokowi?

Under a law passed last year, political parties can field a candidate only if they control one-fifth of the legislature or received 25 percent of the vote in the previous general election. Since no party meets either threshold alone, alliances are key. Jokowi gained endorsements from nine parties, including former ruling party Golkar, which received about 15 percent of the 2014 vote. His Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle won 19 percent. Subianto met the threshold after gaining support from another former ruling party Democrat, as well as his Gerindra party and three others. The election was confirmed as a two-horse race when nominations were finalized Aug. 10.

4. What gives Jokowi the edge?

The 57-year-old has worked hard at maintaining an image as the “people’s president” that helped catapult him to the top job. He has also stitched together an alliance of parties that controls more than 60 percent of parliament. His government’s focus on infrastructure, lining up more than $300 billion of projects to better connect the nation’s almost 17,000 islands, is popular with credit rating agencies and the public alike. He has slashed costs of everything from gasoline to cement in far-flung regions such as Papua and Sulawesi and won admiration at home -- and weariness from international companies -- by asserting Indonesian ownership of key resources, for instance wresting majority control of the Grasberg copper and gold mine from U.S. company Freeport-McMoRan Inc.

5. What are his weaknesses?

The opposition will point to the high cost of the infrastructure agenda and an increasing dependence on foreign investment, particularly from China. Subianto, 66, will also highlight a record public debt, a weak currency, growing concerns about inequality and low agriculture prices. Jokowi made it harder for the opposition to exploit any religious divide by picking Ma’ruf Amin, the head of the nation’s influential clerics’ council, as his running mate. Subianto’s party was supported by powerful Islamic groups in 2017’s Jakarta governor election, which was marred by street protests and sectarian tensions.

6. Which are the other important voter blocs?

Indonesia is a young country, with a projected 70 million first-time voters making up 38 percent of the electorate. Jokowi’s extensive use of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may give him an edge, as might his push to transform Indonesia into a manufacturing powerhouse and create job opportunities for millions of young graduates. Women are also likely to be a focus for presidential and parliamentary hopefuls. Jokowi has boosted his credentials by assembling a cabinet with one of the world’s highest ratios of women ministers.

7. What are the candidates’ economic agendas?

Neither Jokowi nor Subianto have spelled out their plans yet. It’s been a rocky year in the markets as foreign investors sold off the nation’s currency, stocks and bonds during an emerging market rout. Economists are calling for measures to address Indonesia’s vulnerability to external shocks and a current-account deficit that’s been bloated by foreign investment outflows.