Government and governance, Health, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

29 July 2020

Discontent with the government’s pandemic response is likely to be a crucial issue for voters in Indonesia’s December elections, and it could have some positive effects on the country’s politics, Fadhilah Fitri Primandari writes.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia has created great challenges for Indonesia’s governance and development plans. As the virus spreads across the archipelago, the government has scrambled to adjust the national budget and restrict movement while trying to assure citizens that the nation will be able to get through the pandemic safely.

Despite such efforts, people have not been entirely happy with the government’s handling of COVID-19. It has attracted criticism on a wide range of issues, from its delayed response and attempts to downplay the severity of the pandemic, to the evident cracks in its eventual coordination and the country’s health infrastructure. Its latest reopening of public spaces despite the soaring numbers of cases has drawn the ire of some citizens.

This is not without consequence, as problems with the government’s response will have an inevitable impact on Indonesia’s upcoming elections.

As many as 270 of Indonesia’s regions – nine provinces, 224 regencies, and 37 cities – are scheduled to go to the polls to elect new regional leaders on 9 December this year, after their postponement from September. The pandemic response is sure to still be at the forefront of voters’ minds.

The crisis is going to have a number of effects. It may give incumbents an advantage, as newcomers will face more difficulty in engaging voters due to physical distancing policies and restrictions of movement. Incumbents have more opportunities to gain the spotlight, as the problems posed by the COVID-19 allow room for them to showcase their leadership.

Pandemic missteps, however, may land incumbents in hot water, facing heavy criticism and a decrease in support, as voters will be more attentive to governance during these testing times.

More on this: COVID-19 and mental health in Indonesia

Along with the upcoming local elections, the political opportunities posed by the COVID-19 crisis also applies to the 2024 presidential election. In recent months, several political figures have gained popularity. Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, Ridwan Kamil, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, and Tri Rismaharini were among the many regional leaders praised for their handling of the pandemic, and may take this opportunity to have a tilt at national politics. That said, who will be running in the 2024 election remains up in the air.

The crisis, however, has also become a reminder for the public to be more aware of candidates who use crises, and particularly the economic problems that they cause, as a chance to cynically gain electoral support.

At least 5.1 million people were predicted to fall below the poverty line by the end of June 2020 as a result of COVID-19 in Indonesia, and the pandemic has caused millions to lose their jobs. Unfortunately, demand for relief could be utilised by candidates who use economic aid to gain voters.

Recently one politician, the Regent of Klaten Sri Mulyani, was heavily criticised for the distribution of aid packages branded with her name and photographs. Her administration quickly clarified that it was unintentional, and both government bodies and critics have warned running candidates to not politicise the pandemic and the resulting vulnerability among the public.

While there will be some political moments like this in the wake of the pandemic, in the long run, the crisis experience is likely to lead voters to place healthcare and disaster management high on the agenda for political parties, coalitions, and candidates.

More on this: Saving lives will save Indonesia’s economy

This is hardly a disaster for Indonesian politics, especially given this effect is likely to extend to those planning to run in the 2024 presidential election. For at least the past decade, problems of healthcare and disaster mitigation have remained at the periphery of debates prior to elections.

While healthcare is often mentioned, discussion has mainly been made up of all parties providing lip service to access and affordability, without much depth or rigour applied to Indonesia’s deep health policy problems. Strategies for disaster mitigation, for its part, have not been clearly announced in most elections and only rarely publicly debated. This is a serious political weakness for a country with struggling health infrastructure and frequent experience with disasters.

The past four months have revealed to the public that the government is highly unprepared for national-scale disasters, and particularly those that intersect with health. Public criticism, both from research institutions and those at the grassroots level, has also shown that people are realising that the issue of healthcare goes beyond a focus on affordability and access, but also to research, quality, and resilience.

Indonesians are becoming more aware that the conduct of politics should not be separated from science, and will be closely watching candidates for concrete strategies to tackle the problems of healthcare and disaster mitigation in their campaign promises.

Hopefully, the pandemic will have an overall positive effect on Indonesian politics by making it more difficult for candidates to get by on mere rhetoric and jargon, as people have now experienced the brunt of what happens when such politicians are faced with a crisis in office.

Hopes for depth in policy debate on healthcare and disaster mitigation, however, cannot be realised without persistent demand from voters over the next several elections, and will not be fixed even by one very positive election result.

While politicians are certainly likely to need to come up with comprehensive policies in these areas, rigorous feedback and scrutiny from the public is needed over a longer period of time to make health and disaster management enduring election issues. Without some of this scrutiny, promises to prioritise these areas will become a mere tool that politicians use to hog the public spotlight, rather than a path to fixing Indonesia’s many thorny policy problems.

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