SUDIRMAN SAID is smiling and shaking hands with shopkeepers selling everything from meat carcasses to herbal tonics. The crowded market in Semarang, the capital of Central Java, is not the sort of place one would expect to encounter a smartly dressed 54-year-old accountant. But as the opposition’s candidate to be governor of the province, Mr Sudirman must campaign in every corner to stand even a slim chance of victory. Few others were brave enough to seek the nomination. “They didn’t want to be losers,” Mr Sudirman chuckles. “Am I willing to be a loser?”
Millions of Indonesians will go to the polls on June 27th to choose governors, mayors and other officials. All three of the country’s most populous provinces—West, East and Central Java—face elections. The island of Java accounts for less than a tenth of Indonesia’s territory but almost half of its 190m-plus voters (the overall population is 266m, making Indonesia the world’s fourth-most-populous country). Moreover, Java played a pivotal part in the most recent presidential election, in 2014, when Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, narrowly beat Prabowo Subianto. The upcoming vote is the biggest test for the president since then and before next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
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Jokowi had a setback last year when the opposition won Jakarta, the capital. Even in Central Java, the president’s own province and a stronghold of his party, PDI-P, the opposition sniffs a chance. The two big electoral coalitions in the province are not exactly the same as the ones at the national level, but the resemblance is close enough that the campaign for governor may provide clues as to how next year’s presidential poll might unfold.
In Jakarta, the opposition prevailed by stirring up racial and religious rancour against the ethnic-Chinese, Christian incumbent. That may not work in Central Java. Its governor, Ganjar Pranowo, is a Javanese Muslim. Campaigns against “loose morals”, and the president’s failure to enforce a stricter sort, might go down well in conservative places but do not resonate with Central Java’s more relaxed voters. The version of Islam practised here owes more to the moderate views of Nahdlatul Ulama, a mass Muslim organisation with roots in the countryside, than to the more doctrinaire teachings gaining ground elsewhere in Indonesia. So the opposition is focusing instead on public disenchantment with Jokowi’s government, especially its seeming inability to curb corruption.
This plays to Mr Sudirman’s strengths. As Jokowi’s energy minister in 2014-16, he won fame as an advocate for clean government. Sensationally, he released a recording in which the Speaker of parliament at the time appeared to try to extort shares from the local head of Freeport McMoRan, an American firm that runs a huge copper-and-gold mine in the Indonesian part of New Guinea. The Speaker said variously that the request for shares was a joke and that it was made at the president’s behest (which the president denies), but he resigned his post. A court later declared the tapes inadmissible as evidence. The former Speaker is now on trial in a different corruption case. Mr Sudirman, for his part, was dropped from the cabinet.
Mr Sudirman suspects he was sacrificed to preserve Jokowi’s alliance with Golkar, the second-largest party in parliament, which the Speaker then chaired. “Golkar made a bargain,” he says. Reckoning that Jokowi’s government was no longer serious about reform, Mr Sudirman defected to Mr Prabowo’s camp. “At the national level there is a changing political landscape. When people are tired, they look for something new. That is also happening in Central Java,” he says.
At a hotel conference room in Semarang Mr Sudirman kneels solemnly as Christian priests crowd around, reciting prayers. Christians, many of them ethnic Chinese, are only 3% of Central Java’s 34m people, but Mr Sudirman says he has a “special interest” in listening to their worries, to counter claims that he wants to stir up the religious and ethnic tensions of Jakarta’s election. “I have to prove I am not in that mood,” he says.
However ecumenical his behaviour, it still seems unlikely that Mr Sudirman will prevail in Central Java. Jokowi hails from a town in the province. In 2014 he won 67% of the local vote. Flags emblazoned with the symbol of PDI-P, a red-eyed bull, are a common sight. Opinion polls are not always reliable in Indonesia, but the latest one puts Mr Ganjar, the incumbent, almost 70 percentage points ahead of Mr Sudirman. After all, points out Ari Setiawan, a 50-year-old with a wispy white beard eating a bowl of rice gruel at a roadside stall, “Central Java is the home of the red bull.” But it could still provide some pointers for the opposition.