Jakarta. As the dust starts to settle after last week's regional elections, several takeaways have emerged for the next year's legislative and presidential elections.
For one, Indonesian voters have shown a new level of political maturity, choosing candidates primarily on their personal integrity and ability, instead of party affiliation. The election results also allay concerns that religious and ethnic sentiments would continue to take center stage in Indonesian politics.
What the outcome of the latest regional elections does not provide, is a clear path for next year's presidential election. Political parties still play an important role in elections, as executive candidates must secure support from at least 20 percent of legislative seats, but there is no guarantee that a bigger coalition base will necessarily secure victory.
"This election reconfirms previous findings that the power of specific candidates is more influential compared with their affiliation to certain political parties," said Deni Irvani, research director at Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC).
In West Java for example, gubernatorial candidate Sudrajat and his running mate Ahmad Syaikhu had the largest support base among all candidates, with endorsements from the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN). But they lost to former Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil and his running mate Uu Ruzhanul Ulum, who were endorsed by the National Awakening Party (PKB), National Democratic Party (NasDem), People's Conscience Party (Hanura) and United Development Party (PPP).
The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) teamed up with the opposition PKS and PAN on a national level to barely pass the parliamentary threshold in South Sulawesi. But their candidate, Nurdin Abdullah, who distinguished himself as head of Bantaeng district, easily won the province's gubernatorial race.
Philips J. Vermonte, executive director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Indonesian voters are showing a new level of maturity in their voting behavior.
"Voters are more mature when choosing their regional leaders and it seems to indicate that qualities of good governance are catching on, so voters will choose candidates showing such potential," Vermonte said.
Exit polls by the SMRC of nearly 7,000 respondents in West Java, Central Java, East Java, North Sumatra, West Kalimantan and South Sulawesi, showed that party affiliation of voters does not directly translate into them choosing leaders based on party endorsement.
Rizka Halida, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Indonesia, said voters find it easier to process the quality of each individual candidate.
A candidate's perceived integrity and ability alone are most often enough to overcome negative perceptions based on religious or ethnic sentiments. Newly elected West Java Governor Ridwan was able to overcome being painted by his opponents his as un-Islamic. Bekasi Mayor Rahmat Effendi will most likely also be re-elected despite opposition from Islamic hardliners over his decision to approve the building of a Catholic church, which the West Java city has been blocking for almost two decades.
Vermonte said the divisive 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election had set an example for political parties and their candidates to take a more balanced approach this time around, thus nationalistic candidates were paired with more religious figures.
"We must appreciate that there was self-censorship from the elite to eliminate potential friction," he said.
How these results would translate in next year's legislative and presidential elections is less straightforward. Parties fluidly join or oppose each other in different regions with no clear ideological distinction, "making it impossible for voters to evaluate candidates or their parties more critically," Vermonte said.
For President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and retired army general Prabowo Subianto, who are likely to have rematch in next year's election, the question is how they can find running mates that would leverage grassroots support, particularly in the country's most populous regions.
The Islamic opposition coalition also surprised with its showing in the West Java and Central Java provincial elections as its candidates doubled their support on election day in comparison with what pre-election surveys had us believe.
In reflecting on his defeat, Dedi Mulyadi, Golkar Party's deputy gubernatorial candidate in West Java, said candidates should not rely on the mass media or even social media to polish their image, but on networks of volunteers or party members campaigning on grassroots level.
"Analysis of what many experts missed in West Java election: There was a changing phenomenon, with image politics having turned into territorial guerrilla politics. Moving towards the 2019 presidential election, Golkar and other parties supporting Jokowi should also be aware of this," Dedi said.
However, Arizka Warganegara, a political analyst at Lampung University, said conventional campaigns will remain effective in the upcoming presidential election, as they encompass Indonesia's vast geography. Based on the 2014 presidential election, endorsements of allies, ranging from local and religious leaders to popular artists, would also help shape the image of presidential candidates.