By Ahmad Cholis Hamzah*
Public still have dim recollection on the phrase “It’s the economy stupid” that was a slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid”, which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H.W Bush. This memorable phrase did not state it in public instead it was aimed at instructing Clinton’s campaign workers as one of three messages to focus on apart from “Change Vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care”.
It was a reminder for each other behind the scenes that all campaign stuffs such as speeches, media messages, statements should address the economy in some way’. The phrase was proven to be successful as 64% of polled Americans disapproved of Bush’s Job performance in August 1992. In fact, before that polled American approval to Bush’s job performance reached 90%.
Now this campaign mantra seems to be the right reminder for Indonesian voters when facing their decisive voting decision in the upcoming April 2019 presidential election since the already heated campaign activities tend to focus on useless sectarian issues.
Indonesia is widely known as the third largest democratic nation in the world after U.S and India and the country has reached significant progress in democracy after more than 30 years under an authoritarian regime that forcibly prevented its people from having democratic freedom. Then people have been enjoying freedom of the press and to assemble as well as to express their political expression. The country with its vast territory consists of 17,000 islands, hundreds of ethnic groups and local languages as well as different religions, and yet the country has been able to unite its people.
The incumbent Joko widodo’s decision to choose an old Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his presidential running mate has provoked the sensitive issue in the country- that is religion. Amid the uncertainty in global economy due to the escalating trade war and protectionism among developed countries where retaliation becoming regular fashion that affects Indonesian national economy. Widodo’s pick for his running mate aiming at his second term could be an “obstacle” as public would be shown by campaign issues of “division” within the society. Public discourse would be only on “indigenous vs. Outsider”, “Muslim vs. Non-Muslim” and “Real cleric vs. bogus cleric” thus neglects the real issues such as education, health, economic imbalance between Islands, poverty, foreign debt, current account deficit, small and medium enterprises etc. It seems that the incumbent’s choice of his running mate is seen to be his protection against public allegation that he is not “Islamic enough”, so he feels insecure with his faith credential.
Indonesia has been known as a country that could unite its people with different background of faiths for long time. But political identity has emerged in the surface during and after gubernatorial election in Jakarta. Basuki Tjahya Purnama or also known as Ahok, a Christian – Chinese Indonesian who was Widodo’s vice governor prior his rise to his presidency in 2014 was an outspoken person and succeeded Widodo as governor becoming the first minority Christian – Chinese to hold that office. Less than three years later he was found guilty of committing blasphemy against Islam after waves of demonstration of Muslims everywhere in the country protesting him.
Indonesia since then has been at the crossroad. In fact Jakarta is not Indonesia; public outside Jakarta used to be rational separating Jakarta’s political turmoil from wider national interests. Yet Widodo’s choice of Ma’ruf Amin was still concerned about the potential Ahok-style attack on his Islamic credentials and that provokes sectarian issues emerge in the surface again in the upcoming presidential election as people nationwide begin to divide themselves, between “we” and “they”.
Indonesia's president four years ago had big plans to launch Southeast Asia's largest economy into the world's top 10. Like other presidents before him, he pledged to loosen red tape, relax restrictions on foreign investment and upgrade the nation with a massive infrastructure push as well as to eradicate complex and complicated business regulations. To speed up growth, which has been hovering around 5%, economists say the country needs to further remove complicated investment restrictions, upgrade the manufacturing sector to produce more high-value products, and spend more on education to enhance the domestic workforce.
All public eye are on economic issue like the currency. The rupiah has been caught in the sell-off that has swept up Turkey, Argentina and South Africa. Current-account deficits since 2011 make the country more fragile to external shocks than regional peers such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, leading the rupiah to fall about 9% against the dollar this year. Still the slide is one of the steepest in Asia; although it is far from the 21% drop in 2013 and 32% plunge during the Asian crisis in 1998.
Source; Nikei Asian Review, 2018
The incumbent’s contender Prabowo Subianto is a retired General, former commander of well-known Indonesian Army Special Force, the Red Beret who already lost the 2014 presidential race against Widodo. However, his party Gerindra defeated governor Ahok in the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta in a successful campaign that appealed to conservative Muslim voters.
Actually, apart from his pick of Muslim cleric to be his running mate, Widodo could have had advantage position since he gets supports from ruling party politicians, wealthy business people, and media moguls. However, his “sudden” choice on Muslim cleric would erode his advantageous position since Prabowo and his running mate Sandiaga Uno a looking good young wealthy businessmen, a US graduate and former vice governor of Jakarta would focus on economic issues. Sandiaga Uno said that Indonesia should focus on job creation, “very deep structural reform” and eradicating corruption. But in the absence of supports from mainstream media, the contender would work very hard to take advantage of Information Technology, social media that already becoming modern life style to attract more than 180 million voters in the country.
There is a moral covenant within the nation that all people agree a democracy and the unitary of Indonesia can be uphold and preserved provided that people avoid touching sensitive issues known as SARA in the daily life including in election campaigns. SARA is short of Suku (Ethnicity), Agama (Religion), and Ras (Race). Election is only a tool of a democracy, it also a tool of political education for society as well as a tool for uniting people. Therefore, the upcoming April 2019 presidential election should publicly discuss basic needs of the people, the economy rather to discuss issues that could divide people based on sectarian segregation. Otherwise, democracy in Indonesia is still long way to go.
Although it is not necessarily using James Carville’s phrase “It’s the economy stupid” as it is a very blunt phrase that does not fit with Indonesian culture, yet voters should be reminded that the economic issue is important. Global economic uncertainties due to protectionisms, trade war, and economic sanctions, the increasing amount of foreign debt, the weakness of currency and poverty will have significant impacts on Indonesian economy which in return will affect the prosperity of the people.
*Alumni University of London and
Airlangga University Surabaya, Indonesia
Special Staff of Rector of Airlangga University
on International Affairs.
(The opinion in this article is author owned and does not reflect the policy
of Airlangga University).