Polls on voter preferences consistently suggest that Indonesians value 'honesty' and 'care for the people' as the two most important traits that Indonesia's President should have.
There appears to be an interesting trend regarding the emergence of post-Reformasi presidents in Indonesia. The elected presidents generally tend to have a contrasting image compared to their predecessors. Megawati Soekarnoputri, who succeeded Abdurrahman Wahid as President in 2001, had characteristics that contradicted Wahid’s personal image and temperament. Unlike her predecessor, Megawati tended to be tight-lipped and much less talkative and therefore did not provoke as much controversy.
But it seemed that she failed to anticipate the changing mood of the public which had grown weary with her taciturn persona. The election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the country’s first direct presidential election in 2004 reflected the public’s yearning for a president who was much more articulate and intellectual: traits that Megawati did not possess. But after two terms under Yudhoyono, the public mood shifted again in 2014 to reflect their preferred candidate as someone who did not keep his distance from his people and appeared simple, hands-on, and decisive: characteristics that had been considered the opposite of Yudhoyono.
What do these trends portend for the upcoming 2024 presidential election? Will the public mood shift again to favour a figure who displays a contrasting persona compared to Jokowi?
If the 2024 presidential election follows the previous pattern, then the current Jakarta Governor, Anies Baswedan, is arguably the candidate with leadership traits and personal characteristics that stand in stark contrast to Jokowi. At a time when Jokowi is being increasingly criticised for bringing about an authoritarian turn in Indonesian politics, evidenced by moves such as the disbanding of Islamist groups Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Anies has sought to portray himself as a defender of democracy. He also portrayed himself as an eloquent interlocutor for Indonesia who is comfortable speaking in English and engaging at international forums, in contrast to Jokowi’s known aversion to international engagements and comparative lack of fluency in English.
If it is true that displaying a contrasting image from Jokowi will win electoral support, Anies should be leading in the presidential polls by now. But credible polls so far still place Anies in third place behind Prabowo Subianto and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo.
So, what are the polls saying that the public wants to see in their presidential candidates in 2024?
According to a national face-to-face survey by Indikator Politik Indonesia in November 2021, the two personal qualities that the public valued the most in presidential candidates were “honest/clean from corruption” (39.3%), and “care for the people” (34.6%) (Figure 1). Coming in a distant third was the criteria of being “religious” – rated by 8.9% of respondents as the most important quality; while 8.1% chose “strong/firm” (See Figure 1 for the ranking of the top 6 most valued traits).
Figure 1: Most Important Traits for a Presidential Candidate (Proportion of Respondents)
A comparison with similar polls done in the run-up to the 2014 and 2019 presidential polls shows almost no change in respondents’ list of most-valued traits for presidential candidates (See Table 1). Honesty and care for the people are still top the list of the most important qualities in a presidential candidate. In the previous elections, most of the respondents who cited “honesty” and “care for the people” as the most important qualities overwhelmingly picked Jokowi as their presidential candidate.
Table 1: Most-Valued Traits for Presidential Candidates Ahead of the 2014, 2019, and 2024 Elections (Proportion of Respondents)
Looking ahead to the 2024 election, there is currently no presidential candidate who dominates the public preference for these two qualities (Table 2). Among the 39.3% who consider honest/trustworthy as the most important leadership trait for a president, 28.7% wanted to vote for Ganjar, 27.9% for Prabowo, and 15% for Anies. The rest is distributed equally to other candidates. Similarly, for the trait of being attentive and close to the people, Prabowo and Ganjar also lead the list of most favoured candidates. This explains why the credible polls have so far not found a dominant presidential candidate for the upcoming election.
Table 2: Personal Quality Ratings of 2024 Presidential Candidates (Proportion of Respondents)
The polls suggest that candidates must craft their personal image as a clean and caring leader if they want to win, because almost 75% of respondents consider these two qualities to be paramount in a presidential candidate.
If this polling pattern does not change, then it suggests that, far from the aspiring presidential candidates seeking to differentiate themselves from Jokowi, the opposite may be true. Indeed, many of the presidential aspirants appear to be busy copying and pasting the winning templates that Jokowi had demonstrated – cultivating a simple and down-to-earth persona and presenting themselves as a clean and trustworthy figure.
The dominance of personality-centric elections in Indonesia means that the outcome of electoral battles will be heavily influenced by personal image rather than ideological and programmatic differentiation among candidates. One can therefore expect that the next election will also be marked by more hostile personal attacks, including negative and black campaigns. For example, Ganjar and Anies were reported to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for corruption cases and we will definitely see more tit-for-tat allegations against the competing presidential candidates in mutually-assured destructive efforts to delegitimise their opponents.
If this polling pattern does not change, then it suggests that, far from the aspiring presidential candidates seeking to differentiate themselves from Jokowi, the opposite may be true.
Voters will rarely get treated to serious technocratic policy debates among candidates and will probably find it difficult to distinguish between political manifestos. The long-term result will be that the goal of political institutionalisation will continue to face significant setbacks due to voters and politicians being trapped in a never-ending cycle of personality-based electoral competition.
Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.