'Our most disregarded Pacific neighbour': Why New Zealand should care about the Indonesian election

Up to 193 million eligible voters in Indonesia will go to the polls on April 17, in what will be the world’s largest single-day election. The election will see incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo go head-to-head with Prabowo Subianto, a former general in the Indonesian armed forces who lost to Jokowi in 2014. This election is also significant as for the first time in Indonesia’s history, the presidential and legislative elections will be held on the same day.

Why should New Zealand care? We put the question to some Indonesia experts...

Indonesian election

Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. Image via

Lester Finch, Director, AUT Indonesia Centre

“Which country is New Zealand’s most disregarded Pacific neighbour? An archipelago of 17,000 islands, more than 300 languages spoken and 260 million people. Yes, it’s Indonesia.

"This large country is full of economic and social development opportunities for entrepreneurial Kiwis yet we don’t know what’s going on there. Many don’t know that the presidential elections are to be held this month and the outcome of those elections will have impact on New Zealand.

"Indonesian language is a doorway to the culture. Australia has around 20 institutions teaching Indonesian language while New Zealand has just one. Why? We just haven’t yet realised the opportunities Indonesia has for us. 

"Indonesia is an exciting country with fine traditions and culture, especially its vibrant music and dance. Let’s pay some attention and step out of our comfort zone to get to know wonderful Indonesia and find out about the two individuals vying for the presidency.”

Natasha Hamilton-Hart, Director, New Zealand Asia Institute

"For New Zealand, the election carries two major points of relevance. First, there are the implications for Indonesia’s future trajectory with regard to human rights and civic freedoms. While neither candidate is a liberal democrat, Prabowo’s platform, history and allies clearly speak to a greater willingness to espouse illiberal limits on individual and minority freedoms.

"Second, there are implications for Indonesia’s trade policy. Both candidates endorse strongly nationalist programmes, including a policy of self-sufficiency in food – which directly impinges on New Zealand’s export prospects in key products including meat and dairy.

"There is at least a rhetorical difference, however. In the campaign, Prabowo has strongly criticised rising food imports in 2018, leaving Jokowi to defend these imports as necessary to maintain food price stability. Jokowi’s administration has been forced to allow these import increases despite an underlying commitment to an ostensibly pro-farmer self-sufficiency strategy. Imports have risen when food prices spiked, but the longer term strategy is likely to be here to stay.”

Sharyn Graham Davies, Associate Professor of Social Sciences at AUT

“Given New Zealand’s recent overwhelming support of its Muslim community, including women donning the head scarf on the Friday following the Christchurch massacre, it is a shame that New Zealand will not find a kindred spirit in the next president of Indonesia. Both of the front-runners have poor track records when it comes to human rights. New Zealand rightly finds it difficult to ignore human rights abuses on the diplomatic stage.

"While the incumbent, Jokowi, is perhaps not malevolent, he has done little to support women or the LGBT community since his election in 2014. While Jokowi’s lacklustre presidency may not be a huge cause for concern, his appointment of vice-presidential candidate, Ma’ruf Amin, is an ultra-conservative Islamic hardliner who thinks Indonesia should be cleansed of its LGBT community.

"Distressingly, though, the Jokowi-Ma’ruf ticket almost looks almost benign compared to the other front-runner, Prabowo. Having married the daughter of former authoritarian ruler Suharto, Prabowo is implicated in a number of mass murders.

"New Zealand needs to pay attention to the upcoming Indonesian election to get to grips with how it will deal with our most populous neighbour when further human rights abuses occur.”

Indi Soemardjan, Chairman of the New Zealand-Indonesia Friendship Council

“New Zealanders can start looking at the size of this election. There will be 800,000 polling stations, six million election workers, and the most complicated single-day ballot in global history. Altogether, there are more than 245,000 candidates running for more than 20,000 national and local legislative seats across hundreds of islands, in addition to the headline presidential contest. Paper ballots and nails are simply the method. No electronic nor digital ballots used.

"Unfortunately, this has also been considered the most divisive presidential election in Indonesia due to the fact that both candidates have effectively used social media channels (and millions of chat/WhatsApp groups) to create public opinions regarding their 'ideological differences', if any.” 

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Research Professor, Indonesia Institute of Sciences

"With its population of over 260 million people, its strategic location at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and between Asia and Australia and its dynamic economy, Indonesia is the largest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and plays a pivotal role in promoting regional peace, stability and prosperity.

"Indonesia is also the world's largest Muslim nation, the world's third largest democracy as well as a member of the G20. Indonesia prides itself as a country where Islam, democracy, modernity and women empowerment walk hand-in hand.

"Indonesia's legislative and presidential elections serve to affirm its identity as a vibrant democracy, while at the same time the rise in identity politics and the proliferation of fake news have become serious concerns as both can undermine democracy. The results of Indonesia's elections are clearly of interest to Indonesia's neighbours, including New Zealand, as they will determine the direction that Indonesia will take in the next five years."

Chris Naziris, lawyer at MKK Jakarta and Wellington

"The 2019 election will be defined by competing populist policies, economic nationalism and rising religious conservatism. These could significantly impact New Zealand’s $ 1 billion worth of exports, the security of the region and the safety of New Zealanders.

"Indonesia has been a pluralistic and largely tolerant nation but continued low mineral prices (Indonesia’s extractive economy mirrors Australia’s) and increasingly ineffective nationalistic economic policies have failed to lift millions out of extreme poverty. This has led to frustration and resentment among many, especially outside Jakarta. In a time of growing US-China tensions, BREXIT, and European economic stagnation, the stability of Indonesia, as the largest economy in Southeast Asia is vital to New Zealand."

Siah Hwee Ang, Chair in Business in Asia 

“Indonesia is a close neighbour to New Zealand and its economic ties with New Zealand have strengthened in the last couple of years. Indonesia’s trade and investment policies might adjust depending on the outcomes of the coming election. This will have an impact on New Zealand businesses either currently trading with our Southeast Asia neighbour or those with the market in sight.

"Even intermediaries that engage with Indonesian counterparts will have to keep themselves abreast of the potential change in political and business climate in Indonesia. More broadly, Indonesia’s election will have ramifications for ASEAN as a whole and the wider Asia-Pacific, which New Zealand is a part of. There will be ripple effects on trade and investment fronts, even if trade agreements may have ring-fenced some of these potential effects. Overall, clearly the election in the largest economy in ASEAN would have both direct and indirect effects on business engagements with the country and the wider context of the Asia-Pacific.”

- Asia Media Centre