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Will elections in Indonesia mean power for the provinces?

Written by Arnaldo Pellini

​I live and work in Indonesia, and along with the rest of the country have been following the increasingly tight elections race, including the televised debates and the comments that followed. Indonesians go to the polls this week facing a stark decision between two very different candidates: Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), the current governor of Jakarta, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general under the Suharto dictatorship. Jokowi, who cultivates a straight-forward image as an anti-corruption reformer, leads the secular-nationalist coalition of six parties, while Prabowo’s coalition has a strong Islamic and traditionalist character. His political message is more conservative and his economic policies more oriented towards businesses and the private sector. Prabowo is also battling discussion of his involvement in human right abuses in the late 1990s.



Reporting is focusing on what the choice of President will mean for Indonesia’s economy, with suggestions that the country has already left it too late to avoid following South Africa and Brazil into the ‘middle-income trap’. Yet while Jokowi and Prabowo are very different men, there can seem to be little to choose between their policies, with both candidates promising to strengthen infrastructure, increase oil and gas exploration and keep the country open to foreign investment, whilst favouring local businesses.


One major point they differ on is decentralisation, an issue of vital importance in an archipelago nation of 34 provinces and 73,000 villages. Since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has been in the process of transitioning from a highly centralised government, with limited accountability towards citizens, towards a greater spread of power across the archipelago. While the all-important budget allocations are still decided at the centre, the decentralization processes are favouring the emergence of a new generation of political leaders (such as Jokowi) who have closer connections with local constituencies and have benefited from demonstrating results and performance by using evidence, local knowledge, and expert advice to inform local policy. Prabowo, on the other hand, has promised to increase Presidential power in order to cut corruption and speed up decision-making. So next week’s elections may have a much bigger impact on how regional governments can represent electors’ local interests, than national policies at the centre.


I recently spent some time reviewing the work of several organisations who have spent the last seven years coaxing the 2013 Village Law into a reality. The Law gives villages a greater say in local decision-making, covering how villages use their assets, how much funding is allocated to villages to decide how to spend themselves, and who is involved in making decisions at village level. While the passing of the Law is a big step for decentralisation and local autonomy, it will remain merely another piece of legislation if effort is not put into implementing the law and rolling out other decentralisation measures.


Dry legislation like the Village Law may be far from the average voters mind as election day approaches, but the choice of Indonesia’s president will set the tone for how the business of government is carried out over the next five years: will the country continue on its current, if slow, trajectory towards greater decentralisation and increased powers for local people to have their say – or will powers be sucked back to the centre?


In my view, if Jokowi wins the election we may see a more consensual approach to crafting policies, greater involvement of citizens in decision-making, and a push towards towards a more consolidated democratic rule and downwards accountability. If Prabowo wins, most of the decision may be made from above, accountability will remain towards the centre and there might be less space for informing policy-making with a range of perspectives and knowledge.


Unsurprisingly for an elections debate focused on big issues, there was little discussion about how the business of government would be carried out under the different Presidents in the TV debates. Big promises win votes, but style of governing and a willingness to listen to perspectives from across the world’s third largest democracy will be key in determining if either candidate can rise to the huge economic and social challenges facing Indonesia.