Jokowi gambles on rural voters

This picture taken in Ngawi on 2 April, 2019 shows Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is running for the upcoming election, speaking during a campaign rally in Ngawi. Indonesia will hold general elections on 17 April. (Juni Kriswanto / AFP Photo)

For Siti Mutmainah, a government cash handout of 800,000 rupiah (US$56) every quarter has turned her family’s life around, putting health care and education for her two children well within her reach.

Mutmainah’s family is one of the 10 million households – or just over 15 percent of the country –benefiting from Indonesia’s ‘family hope program’, 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 program 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 Mutmainah’s husband’s often unstable farm income – and now she’s determined to give her vote to Jokowi in the 17 April 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 Mutmainah, from Sumber Dandang village in Central Java, who started receiving assistance in 2017. “Of course, I want this program to continue, and my vote is for Jokowi’s continuation,” Mutmainah said.

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

A second term for Jokowi 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 program 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 Jokowi has centred his campaign on his government’s achievements, Prabowo, as Subianto is known, has accused the president of failing to protect farmers’ interests, and vowed to tackle economic inequalities in the world’s fourth-most populous country.

Jokowi, who’s won praise for undertaking a US$350 billion infrastructure drive, has also showered billions of dollars on local governments to build everything from dams to solar lamps. The social assistance programs, 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’s re-elected, to 400 trillion rupiah from 257 trillion rupiah in his first term, Jokowi said.

Rural push

The incumbent is leading Prabowo by a double-digit margin in most opinion polls. Still, Prabowo has closed the gap in urban areas by six percent in the last month, leaving Jokowi with a narrow advantage of 51.5 percent versus Prabowo’s 48.5 percent, according to a Roy Morgan survey released this week.

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

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

“The real question is about the sustainability of such programs," she said, noting Jokowi was struggling to realise his promise to push down the unemployment rate to four-to-five percent and the poverty level to seven-to-eight percent.

Jokowi 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 Jokowi 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 dispute with big companies, especially in plantation and mining areas. In big cities like Jakarta, these certificates prevent those living in illegal settlements being evicted to pave way for development.

With the unequal wealth distribution being a recurring theme in Prabowo’s campaign, conferring land ownership helps Jokowi blunt the attack, said 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,” Hanan said. “Such a program can be directly felt by the people, especially the grassroots, and thus will positively affect the incumbent’s electability.” - Bloomberg