Jokowi’s Triumph in the 2019 Presidential Election and the Future of Binary Politics


On 17 April 2019, Indonesia held the world’s largest, and arguably most complicated, one-day election. With 193 million voters, almost 6 million recruited election workers,[1] and more than 810,000 polling stations spread across the archipelago, from cities, villages to hundreds of tiny islets, this enormous undertaking involved presidential, legislative (national and local), and senate elections – done simultaneously. Voters’ attention, however, was largely on the presidential election, which led to a turnout of 81%, the highest in Indonesia’s electoral history in the post-reform era.

On 21 May 2019, the Election Commission announced the long-awaited results of the elections: the incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running-mate the Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin have won by garnering 55.40% of the total votes, against former general Prabowo Subianto and his vice-presidential Sandiaga Uno who gained 44.50%. This was the second presidential election for Jokowi and Prabowo as they were also contenders in the 2014 election.

This election also marked a culmination of Indonesia’s religious-pluralist binary politics, with Prabowo’s camp relying on the mobilization of Islamist sentiments and Jokowi’s camp generally seen as championing pluralism. This article analyzes what Jokowi’s win means for the future of binary politics in Indonesia as well as shedding light on the impact of the 2019 election to the country’s state of democracy.

A repeat of the 2014 election

It is noteworthy that in many aspects the 2019 presidential election was a repeat of that in 2014. In terms of candidates, both elections were two-horse races between Jokowi and Prabowo. Jokowi is backed by a coalition of 10 parties this year – 7 nationalist and 3 Islamic- led by the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP). Prabowo, is supported by a coalition of five parties – 3 nationalist, 2 Islamic, including the Islamist-oriented Justice and Prosperous Party (PKS) - led by the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra). The only difference was that back in 2014 Jokowi had a thinner coalition consisting only of five parties led by PDIP, while Prabowo was backed by six parties led by Gerindra.

In terms of results, both elections were won by Jokowi by significant margins, 6.3% in 2014 and 11% in 2019. Yet compared to five years ago, Jokowi won in fewer provinces this year. He lost in South Sulawesi, the province where the current Vice President Jusuf Kalla originates from, leading to a speculation that back in 2014 South Sulawesi voters were really voting for Kalla and not Jokowi. Notably, the President has won in 21 provinces, mostly strongholds of his party coalition and/or those with significant non-Muslim populations such as Bali (PDIP stronghold, 84% Hindu), North Sulawesi (PDIP stronghold, 68% Christian), Central Java (PDIP stronghold) and East Java (PKB stronghold). Meanwhile Prabowo has won in 13 predominantly Muslim provinces, one of which is West Java, a province deemed the most religiously intolerant in 2017,[2] and which, with its 33 million voters, has the largest number of voters in the country.

The 2019 presidential election also mirrors that of 2014 in terms of the losing camp's reactions. Like in 2014, Prabowo has not accepted the 2019 results, claiming a ‘structural, systemic and massive’ election fraud. He also has filed a challenge against these results at the Constitutional Court (MK). In the weeks following the 2019 elections, Prabowo and his supporters had claimed that based on their own exit poll they had scored 54-62% of the total votes, - in total contrast to the quick-count results of the majority of pollsters which indicated that Jokowi had won.[3]

2019 and 2014 Presidential Ballots

Prabowo’s rejection has also given excuse for some of his supporters to instigate mass unrest. Back in 2014, Prabowo’s withdrawal from the election after being announced as the loser and his challenge at MK triggered a riot by his supporters at the Constitutional Court.[4]  Similarly, on 21-22 May 2019 thousands of Prabowo’s supporters who had gathered outside the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) demanding the annulment of the victory of the incumbent President Jokowi also instigated multiple unrests in different locations in the capital city.

To prevent the spread of riots, on 22 May the government restricted the access to social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The President declared that the police and the military would take “stern actions” against those who seek to disrupt security and the process of democracy.[5] Meanwhile, albeit calling for his supporters to avoid violence and respect law enforcers, Prabowo’s televised speech also called for the police to “stop hitting and shooting our own citizens,”[6] which could have exacerbated the animosity against law enforcers whom some believed have been siding with the incumbent.[7] Eight people were reportedly dead following the riots, and the police has arrested hundreds of suspects.[8]

More importantly, the recent election portrayed the culmination of the religious-pluralist binarism as a significant element in Indonesia’s politics. With Prabowo’s campaign relying on sectarian sentiments and Jokowi generally considered as supporting pluralism, the election showed how religious campaigning has aggravated the cleavage between the two camps.

The religious-pluralist binary politics

Binary oppositions, or polarization, are typified by the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes.[9] US politics which only allows two parties to participate significantly in governance has led to binary stances on several disputatious issues, such as the conflict between “Conservative vs Liberal” or “Left vs Right” or political cues such as “pro-Life vs pro-Choice”, while ‘third’ alternatives are generally less accommodated. In Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, where religion plays a significant role in politics, binarism is illustrated by the conflict between the defenders of secularism and liberal rights on the one hand, and guardians of Islam and Islamic law on the other.[10]

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and Islam has also gained center-stage in its politics. The recent presidential election showed that, albeit in different ways, religion was used by both camps as an important element in their electoral strategies. Prior to the election, Jokowi’s decision to appoint a conservative Muslim cleric as running mate had surprised many, especially because the President is known to hold a moderate Islamic stance. Ma’ruf Amin, on the other hand, was chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) which had issued religious edicts (fatwa) against “secularism, liberalism, and pluralism” and against the Ahmadiyah – a movement considered deviant by Indonesian mainstream Islam. Ma’ruf Amin was also key witness in the trial which sent the former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) to prison for blasphemy. Albeit these conservative credentials, however, he was the rais ‘aam (supreme leader) of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organization as well as champion of moderate Islam.

While observers generally agree that Ma’ruf’s nomination was Jokowi’s effort to ‘shield’ himself from the prospect of a bitter sectarian attack by Prabowo and his supporters, [11] they are divided on what having a conservative vice-president would mean for the Jokowi government in the next five years.  Some believe that the vice-president office is generally not instrumental in policy-making, yet others pointed out how the current Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has made the office effectual in governance.

Jokowi’s pragmatic move may have disappointed his pluralist supporters, yet his concerns about being ‘attacked’ by the Islamists were not unfounded. In the long campaign period, rumors were spreading that the President was going to erase religious education at schools and ban Islamic calls for prayer (adzan) and that he was sympathetic to the long-disbanded communist party – communism being seen as the ultimate ‘enemy’ of Islam.[12] This was not the first time that issues questioning Jokowi’s ‘Islam-ness’ was used to discredit him. Back in 2014, the rumors that Jokowi was not a devout Muslim and that he was secretly a Chinese had contributed to a temporary decline in his popularity.[13] In 2016 the Islamists used similar hate-mongering tactics against Jokowi’s ally, former Jakarta governor Ahok who really has a Chinese-Christian background. In the most acrimoniously sectarian gubernatorial election, the Islamists, supported by Prabowo, successfully prevented Ahok’s reelection and pressurized the court to jail him for blasphemy.[14] These groups, dubbed the “212 movement” – taken from the date of the anti-Ahok rally on 2 December 2016 – have now become a semi-consolidated anti-Jokowi movement, which regularly mobilizes street rallies as a show of force.

The decision to nominate a conservative cleric as his running mate was thus derived from the deep concerns caused by these episodes. Albeit his pluralist supporters’ criticism, Jokowi’s strategy seems to have successful in preventing the conservative voters from overwhelmingly siding with Prabowo: an exit poll indicated that only 51% of Muslim voters voted for Prabowo, while 97% of non-Muslim voters voted for Jokowi.[15]

Prabowo, who was “officially” supported by Islamist leaders, surprisingly did not take an Islamic cleric as running mate, but a businessman, Sandiaga Uno. Some observers believed that this was for campaign-financing purposes.[16] Yet Prabowo’s association with the Islamists was still solidified in a political pact with groups such as the National Movement of Fatwa Defenders (GNPF) and the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), In which he promised to prioritize Islamic values and interests if he became president in 2019.[17] In May 2019, when it was clear that Jokowi was winning the election, the same groups called for the Electoral Commission to disqualify the incumbent, claiming a massive electoral fraud.[18]

Yet Islamism was not the only strategy that the opposition has used. Prabowo has been ‘transforming’ himself in the past years, from being member of the Suharto regime into a politician claiming to represent the people.[19] In his 2019 campaign he accused the government of harboring corrupt officials and causing the loss of thousands of trillions of rupiah of state budget.[20] While some of his allegations were proven - recently there were graft cases involving the director of the state’s electricity company, as well as the chairman of PPP, a party in Jokowi’s coalition - yet his endeavor to portray himself as a clean leader is interesting as he was the son-in-law of Soeharto, Indonesia’s former president who led the country’s corruption-ridden regime for more than thirty-two years.

He also believes that economic nationalism is the solution to problems in Indonesia’s economy. In many countries in the region, China’s economic dominance had become key election issue, with the oppositions in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives winning elections after criticizing the incumbent governments’ pro-China policies. Prabowo tried to use the same strategy by criticizing Chinese investment on infrastructure projects[21] and accusing the government of permitting a large influx of Chinese foreign workers.[22] Although he also believes that the economic relations with China is important, [23] The above tactic could have been precarious as criticisms on China’s investment could be conflated with the long-resentment against ethnic Chinese Indonesians’ control of the economy. Altough this did not happen, such conflation could have inflamed sectarian sentiments and led to a convergence of populism and religious identity-politics, such as what took place in 2017 Jakarta election.

On the other hand, President Jokowi has also used populist strategies by rolling out infrastructure and welfare programs. As the incumbent, he could no longer rely on his 2014 “soft populism”[24], such as his famous impromptu visits to markets to show that he was part of ‘the poor’. Instead, his current strategies included promising to provide free pre-employment training programs for school graduates and the unemployed, slapping price control on staple goods such as fuel, power, rice and sugar, hiking subsidies and making state-owned enterprises bear the costs. To control the Islamists, the President had in 2017 issued a law prohibiting organizations deemed against the country’s ideology Pancasila. While this policy garnered praises from those who are tired of the Islamists and their exploits, it still harked back to Soeharto regime’s harsher tactics and has thus harvested protests from groups advocating liberal democracy.[25] Prior to the campaign period, the police dissolved events connected to the anti-Jokowi movement known under its Twitter handle #2019gantipresiden (“change the president in 2019”) in several cities. This and other moves by the police have contributed to the accusation that the police have not been neutral.

Despite these seemingly undemocratic moves, Jokowi’s stance have reinforced the image that he is the safest option for religious pluralism and economic development. Albeit his victory in 2019 however, the eight month-long campaign period has divided Indonesian citizenry into the Islamists and the pluralists, and reconciliation appears to be very difficult to achieve.

The National Monument, Jakarta

Indonesian democracy: key takeaways and prospect

In terms of populist strategies, both Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s campaigns emphasized on economic nationalism, the prioritizing of Indonesians’ interests and strong leadership. In addition to his successful infrastructure projects, Jokowi rolled out various populist policies including expanding his welfare programs gearing at improving Indonesia’s human resources. Similarly Prabowo promises a clean and strong governance while accusing the government of not doing enough to prevent budget leakage and giving too much leeway for foreign investors. Being aware of Indonesian voters’ preference for nationalist leaders, both candidates have thus opt for nationalist rhetoric. The only difference between them was the extent of how Islamism have embellished their campaigns.

A key takeaway is thus that the binarism between the pluralists and the Islamists has become a new normal. Jokowi was generally seen as ‘not Muslim’ enough partly due to him being supported by mainly nationalist parties, his past rapport with former governor Ahok, and his overall moderate Islamic stance. The opposition camp also called for muslims to vote for Prabowo in order to protect the ulema (Islamic clerics) [26], although he himself has admitted his limited Islamic credentials. [27] Such binarism persisted even after Jokowi took Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, whom, albeit managing to prevent the conservative voters from overwhelmingly supporting Prabowo, still did not succeed in snatching strategic provinces such as West Java from the opposition’s clutches. How conservatism will inform Indonesian governance remains to be seen, as some observers believe that the President might have to accommodate Ma’ruf Amin’s conservative values in the next five years.

Meanwhile in the parliament, the PDIP coalition won 60.7% of the total seats, while the Gerindra coalition garnered 39.3%. This means that the President’s reform agenda will gain significant support. However, the fact that none of the parties have significantly increased their vote share compared to the 2014 election means that they have not expanded their support base beyond what it was five years ago. This reinforces the argument that instead of an expansion, there has been a consolidation of votes for parties in both coalitions, which has led to a more rigid polarization. The Islamist-Nationalist coalition of  (Gerindra – PKS – PAN) and the Islamist groups (GNPF, FPI and others) will continue playing the role as anti-government forces both in the parliament and on the streets.

A second takeaway is how important issues, such as the economy, have been dwarfed by such binary politics. A populist ‘twist’ on the unemployment issues, for example, the allegations of the influx of foreign workers from China, may have interested some voters, but not too significantly. The fact that the economy has been growing at about 5 %, well below the 7% target that the President put forward when he was elected in 2014, has largely escaped voters’ attention. The country saw a record-breaking trade deficit of USD 2.5 billion last April - the biggest since the 1950s. Although inflation is at a near-decade low, it is set to accelerate again if the President decides to lift the freeze on the prices of gasoline and electricity which he enforced in 2016. These were not part of the main cues in the opposition’s campaign. Neither the allegations of corruption, nor important achievements, such as the fact that unemployment is in its lowest in twenty years, attracted much attention among Jokowi’s supporters.

Towards 2024 - 1st row: Sandi Uno, Agus Yudhoyono, Puan Maharani, Mahfud MD, 2nd row: Ridwan Kamil, Ganjar Pranowo, Anies Baswedan

Lastly, especially for politicians, this year elections’ results are significant for the next election in 2024. The fact that there will not be any incumbent – the presidency has a two-term limit– is good news for those with presidential or vice-presidential ambitions. Sandiaga Uno, Prabowo’s running mate, despite his loss this year will likely seek to build a higher profile in the next five years. Observers are also weighing the chances of Agus Yudhoyono, son of chairman of Democrat Party and former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as well as Puan Maharani, the daughter of chairperson of PDIP and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Some believed that Mahfud MD, former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, who was Jokowi’s first choice for running mate in 2019, might finally have the chance to enter the competition in 2024. In addition, governors such as Ridwan Kamil (West Java) and Ganjar Pranowo (Central Java) – who pledged support for Jokowi- or Anies Baswedan (Jakarta) –who was backed by Prabowo-, could also be strong contenders. While the leveled playing field promises an interesting contestation, yet with the rigid religious-pluralist binarism, it is likely that the 2024 election will again be inflamed by sectarian campaigning while important issues such as economy and welfare continue to escape attention.


[1] The simultaneous elections have claimed the lives of hundreds of poll workers who died of exhaustion due to long working hours in preparing and managing the polls, including counting hundreds of millions votes across the vast archipelago. See “Grueling Indonesia elections death toll hits 230 poll workers” in Nikkei Asian Review, 27 April 2019, (accessed 4/6/2019).

[2] “West Java fails to improve tolerance”, in The Jakarta Post, 11 January 2017, (accessed 4/6/2019).

[3] “Prabowo camp claims 55.4% win based on their exit poll result”, in Tempo, 17 April 2019, (accessed 23/05/2019).

[4] “Kronologi kerusuhan massa pro-Prabowo di MK” (“Chronology of unrest by Prabowo’s supporters at the Constitutional Court”), in Tempo, 21 August 2014, (accessed 23/05/2019).

[5] “President Jokowi warns of stern actions against rioters” in The Jakarta Post, 22 May 2019, (accessed 23/05/2019).

[6] “Ini pernyataan lengkap Prabowo soal rusuh 22 Mei” (“This is Prabowo’s complete statement concerning the 22 May riots”) in Detik, 22 May 2019, (accessed 23/05/2019).

[7] Throughout the campaign period Prabowo’s supporters have insinuated police non-neutrality. See “Prabowo coalition insist on police, TNI neutrality” in Tempo, 16 April 2019, (accessed 31/05/2019).

[8] “Nearly 260 rioters arrested in Jakarta: masterminds are still at large”, in Jakarta Globe, 22 May 2019, (accessed 23/05/2019).

[9] Paul DiMaggio, John Evans, and Bethany Bryson. "Have American's social attitudes become more polarized?" American journal of Sociology 102.3 (1996): 690-755; Delia Baldassarri, and Andrew Gelman. "Partisans without constraint: Political polarization and trends in American public opinion." American Journal of Sociology 114.2 (2008): 408-446.

[10] Moustafa, Tamir. "Liberal rights versus Islamic law? The construction of a binary in Malaysian politics." Law & Society Review 47.4 (2013): 771-802.

[12] “Anti-communist rally in Jakarta: a washout” in The Straits Times, 30 September 2017, (accessed 3/6/2019).

[15] “Siapa saja yang memilih Jokowi dan Prabowo berdasarkan exit poll dan quick count?” (“Who voted for Jokowi and Prabowo according to exit poll and quick count?” in BBC Indonesia, 24 April 2019, (accessed 4/6/2019).

[16] “Mengapa Jokowi pilih Ma’ruf dan Prabowo pilih Sandiaga?” (“Why did Jokowi choose Ma’ruf and Prabowo Sandiaga?”) in Kompas, 13 August 2018, (accessed 6/6/2019).

[17] “Prabowo-Sandiaga signs pact with GNPF promises to uphold religious values”, in The Jakarta Post, 17 September 2018, (accessed 6/4/2019).

[18] “Ijtima Ulama 3 minta KPU 'diskualifikasi Joko Widodo-Ma'ruf Amin', dalam acara yang disebut pengamat mendelegitimasi KPU” (Ijtima Ulama 3 calls for the Electoral Commission to disqualify Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin, in an even observers considered as delegitimizing the Commission”) in BBC Indonesia, 1 May 2019, (accessed 4/6/2019).

[19] Edward Aspinall, "Oligarchic populism: Prabowo Subianto's challenge to Indonesian democracy." Indonesia 99, 2015: 1-28.

[23] “Prabowo: China penting bagi Indonesia, hubungan harus ditingkatkan” (“Prabowo: China is important for Indonesia, relations must be strengthened”) in Kompas, 28 September 2018, (accessed 7/6/2019).

[24] Marcus Mietzner, Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi’s Rise, Democracy and Political Contestation in Indonesia, Honolulu: East-West Center, 2015.

[25] Deasy Simandjuntak, “Jokowi’s ban on radical groups and Pancasila’s uncomfortable past” in Channel News Asia commentary, 22 July 2017, (accessed 1/5/2019).

[26] “Taufik ajak umat Islam pilih Prabowo-Sandi demi selamatkan Ulama” (Taufik calls for Muslims to vote for Prabowo-Sandi to save Ulemas” in, 19 February 2019, (accessed 7/6/2019).

[27] “Prabowo: Ilmu Islam saya kurang, tapi…”  (“Prabowo: My Islamic knowledge is lacking, however…”) in Detik, 27 July 2018, (accessed 7/6/2019); “Alasan di balik dukungan para aktivis Islam kepada Prabowo” (“The reasons why Islamic activists support Prabowo”) in Detik, 15 January 2019, (accessed 7/6/2019).