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Right-Wing Nativism Won't Put Dinner on the Table

Daniel Moss

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A one-time insurgent populist is re-elected on a track record of solid economic management, renewed commitment to infrastructure and an acknowledgment that religion plays a role in many people's lives.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that election was in Australia or India, where talking heads have been quick to link recent right-wing wins to President Donald Trump's ascendancy.

The country is Indonesia, whose 260 million-strong population and potential for economic growth make it far more consequential than Australia. By mid-century, the archipelago nation is projected to be one of the world's four biggest economies, alongside the U.S., China and India. President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, last week was formally declared the winner of elections held April 17.

Superficially, Jokowi's triumph might seem like the latest election outcome to seek Trump analogies. But look closer and there’s reason to think there might be holes in the story line that right-wing parties are sweeping the board. Just as populists failed to completely dominate elections for the European Parliament.

In many ways, Jokowi was the least conservative, least aggressively nationalist and least craven in his pandering to hardline Islamic sentiment of the choices. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, presented himself as the classic strongman. A former top general, Prabowo married the daughter of autocratic ex-ruler Suharto, and left the military amid complaints about human-rights abuses.

As Election Day neared, Prabowo amped up his right-wing nationalist rhetoric. Elites were raping the nation, he claimed, glossing over his own pedigree. Prabowo dialed up appeals to identity politics, brandishing support from Islamic firebrands so radical they were exiled from Indonesia. I was in Jakarta the week before the election, where likening Prabowo to Trump was a popular pastime.

In the end, Jokowi’s ability to deliver an unspectacular albeit steadily growing economy trumped Prabowo’s brand of rabid nationalism. Indonesia's economy has performed decently under Jokowi's watch. Growth in gross domestic product has fallen short of the 7% he targeted when first elected in 2014, but has chugged along at a respectable 5%. Jokowi was also attentive to healthcare, the social-safety net and poverty alleviation.

For decades, Indonesian leaders talked a good game on infrastructure. Jokowi delivered, opening the first stage of Jakarta's subway system a few months ago. An extensive highway program in Java and Sumatra, the two biggest islands, will be bolstered in the president's second term.

Jokowi did shore up support by weaving the importance of Islam into his campaign, selecting a senior cleric as his running mate. The president has also been an economic nationalist, putting significant mineral and energy assets under the wing of state companies. For good measure, Jokowi has been careful to keep China at arm's length. Bottom line: Jokowi still lands in the populist bucket, even if voters show an appetite for a more centrist version of it.

Indonesia's young democracy is far from perfect. Balloting revealed a country increasingly polarized, geographically. Much of Sumatra and important chunks of Java plumbed for Prabowo while the east of the country mainly opted for Jokowi. (As a general rule of thumb, the further east you go in Indonesia, the less the attraction of strict forms of Islam.)  

There's also a growing metropolitan-rural divide that’s different from what we see in the West. In some regions, urban districts supported the hardliner candidate while inland areas, which tend to be less developed and stand to gain more from welfare spending and beefed-up healthcare, backed the incumbent. 

Indonesians have only voted directly for president since 2004. The rioting that beset Jakarta after the electoral commission formally declared Jokowi the winner May 21 shows democracy is still maturing.

But give the world economy's next big thing its due. Eighty percent of the 190-million strong electorate cast ballots, easily surpassing turnout levels in India and the U.S. Even more impressive was that balloting for president, parliament and provincial roles took place over six hours. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 1 p.m. Scores of election workers died from exhaustion across the 17,000 volcanic islands that straddle the equator. When was the last time people cared that much in America or Western Europe?  

The most populist, nativist and divisive of the two campaigns was decisively defeated: Jokowi got 55 percent of the vote, a 10-point margin over Prabowo. This tends to get lost in a rush to draw a link between everything, everywhere to Trump. 

To contact the author of this story: Daniel Moss at dmoss@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachel Rosenthal at rrosenthal21@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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