In a country where political parties are already held in low regard, Indonesia’s democratic landscape may be about to undergo a significant transformation because of the unforeseen consequences of holding the legislative and presidential elections on the same day next April.

Ten political parties are represented in the current 560-seat House of Representatives, now in the final stretch of its five-year term. Come October 2019, when the newly-expanded 575-seat Parliament is convened, opinion polls show that the number of parties could fall from ten to six.

That’s because current polling shows President Joko Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of opposition rival Prabowo Subianto share nearly 50% of the national vote, leaving the other 12 parties in the field – including four newcomers – scrapping over the rest of the spoils.

It was only in the first democratic elections in 1999 that two parties – PDI-P (33.1%) and Golkar (22.4%) – captured more than half of the ballots. In the three elections since then, the highest it has been is 40%; in 2014, top-ranked PDI-P and Golkar took only 33.6% of the vote as smaller parties made a resurgence.

When the Election Law was amended last year, introducing simultaneous elections and a heightened 4% vote threshold to secure parliamentary representation, no-one seemed to comprehend how the presidential candidates would create such a coat-tail effect.

Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures at a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto from Jakarta on July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad
Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures at a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto, July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

It can’t be a coincidence that PDI-P is polling at 27-29% and Gerindra at 18-20%, with Golkar only a shadow of the party that once served as the late president Suharto’s all-powerful machine trailing at 10%. Golkar is now in danger of falling short of the 14% it recorded in the past two elections.

Previously, the parliamentary and presidential elections were staged three months apart, allowing parties who cleared the previous 3.5% vote threshold time for coalition horse-trading ahead of the country choosing a new national leader.

At this point, Golkar and the National Awakening (PKB), Democrat (PD) and National Democratic (Nasdem) parties all appear to be in safe territory, though about 14% of the electorate remains undecided, including many first-time voters.

The Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and United Development (PPP) parties, the National Mandate Party (PAN) and chief political minister Wiranto’s People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) parties all look to be in jeopardy to varying degrees.

Past experience, however, counsels caution. Three months out from the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI) had Golkar and PDI-P neck-and-neck at 18.3% and 18.2%, followed by Gerindra (8.7%) and the Democrats (4.7%) as the other leading contenders.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017.About 100 local elections took place across Indonesia on February 15 but the race in the capital is the most hotly contested, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin
An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin

When the votes were actually cast the result was a lot different: PDI-P won with 18.9%, well clear of Golkar (14.7%), Gerindra (11.8%), Democrats (10.1%), PKB (9%), PKB (9%) PAN (7.5%), PKS (6.7%), PPP (6.5%), Nasdem (6.7%) and Hanura (5.2%).

Apart from two parties which failed to reach the threshold, media tycoon Surya Paloh’s Nasdem and the smaller parties did better than predicted, mainly because they were under less pressure as smaller organizations with fewer vested interests and egos to choose party hacks over more popular local candidates.

Indonesia’s major power-holders have always been obsessed with downsizing since a whopping 48 parties contested the 1999 polls, marking the start of the country’s democratic era after more than three decades of authoritarian rule. But when it came down to revising the Election Law last year, holding simultaneous elections was justified as a cost-cutting venture.

“We didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be without a presidential candidate on the ballot,” says one senior Golkar official. “Now we have to try and convince voters that a vote for us is also a vote for Jokowi (Widodo). Nobody planned for this.”

Complicating the picture is that with the public fixated on the presidential race, members, candidates and supporters whose parties are allied with either the government or opposition camps will not necessarily vote for one or the other’s presidential candidates.

Perhaps the most interesting development in the opinion polls is the 8% degree of separation now between PKB and PPP, the two parties which rely on the 90 million adherents of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) for most of their electoral support.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta’s then incumbent governor Basuki Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian who was running for re-election. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Widodo chose NU’s former supreme leader Ma’ruf Amin, 75, as his running mate largely to split the conservative Muslim vote and ward off spurious claims that he is an ersatz Muslim whose parents supported the outlawed Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

But Amin will have little influence over the legislative elections, where his conservative beliefs have often been at odds with the religiously-tolerant stance of PKB, the party once led by the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, a dedicated pluralist.

PKB edged PPP by narrow two percent margins in 1999 and 2004, fell slightly behind in 2009 and then recovered in 2014 when its rival, wracked by serious internal discord, initially elected to join Prabowo’s so-called Red and White Coalition.

PPP’s troubles stem from the fact that its membership is an amalgamation of different bickering groups, ranging from NU to descendants of former members of the Masyumi Party, disbanded by president Sukarno in 1960 for allegedly backing a separatist rebellion.

Critics also blame PPP chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy for not doing enough in his four years in office to unify the party, with some of its more hard-line supporters peeling off to join PKS. But as the political ground shifts under its feet, even PKS is struggling with damaging internal rifts.

Indonesia-Muhammad Romahurmuziy-PPP-Political Islam-Youtube
PPP chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy in a screen image. Photo: Youtube

While PKB has had its own divisions, chairman Muhaimin Iskander is credited with persuading the party’s national and regional legislators to use their positions to secure funding for NU’s education, agriculture and religious programs.

Crucially, he was also able to recruit Lion Air owner Rusdi Kirana, an ethnic Chinese Christian, to join the party and provide substantial funding for PKB outreach to influential local clerics in key electorates and to help NU-related entrepreneurs.

With PKB set to build on the 47 seats it won in 2014, it seems inconceivable that the eighth-ranked PPP, one of the country’s three oldest parties, will fail to make the new 4% cut to qualify for parliamentary representation, despite falling below 3% in current polling.

Electoral experts recall doom and gloom forecasts about parties failing to make the grade before previous elections as well, but they also acknowledge that holding the elections on the same day introduces a different dynamic which makes it difficult to predict voter behavior, particularly on populous island of Java where elections are won or lost.