July 2023


The uncertainty factor

With Indonesia’s general elections just months away,  Richard Gregson assesses the main contenders, as well as the country’spolitics ofone-upmanship and opportunist alliances

Every political partymay have a broad framework of professed ideology, but politics is never about ethics and honesty. Indonesian politics is a classic example of incongruous alliances and compromises that will surprise many a political observer not familiar with the way politicians jockey for power in this ethnically diverse archipelago, comprising more than 17,000 islands.

General elections to elect the President, Vice President, People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) and members of local legislative bodies, mayors, district chiefs, and governors are scheduled for 14 February 2024. The main actors in the drama – the Presidential candidates, in particular – are wooing a wide spectrum of political parties for support, while the powerful political oligarchs are forming and breaking alliances to ensure that the new incumbent in the Merdeka Palace, the President’s official residence, is pliable, if not actually their puppet. 

President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, a still popular figure, is not eligible to run for a third term due to the limit imposed by the Indonesian constitution, enacted to prevent a repetition of the Suharto phenomenon. Suharto ruled the country, mainly by decree, for over 30 years from 1966 to 1998. The post-Suharto reforms led to far-reaching changes in the constitution of Indonesia, now the world’s third-largest democracy. But the interpretation of religion in this Muslim-majority nationof 280 million people has its own incompatibilities. 

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Megawati Sukarnoputri
General Chairwoman of the PDI-P, Megawati Sukarnoputri

The state doesnot identify with any religion, but the first principle of Indonesia’s philosophical foundation, Pancasila, requires its citizens to declare their belief in ‘the one and almighty God’. Blasphemy is a punishable offence and the state has not been favourably disposed towards the country’s umpteen tribal religions, or towards atheist and agnostic citizens. In general, however, the Muslim clergy has been liberal and tolerant.

Yet recent years have seen a rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Aceh province, which enjoys a level of autonomy, enforces Sharia law, and its religious and sexual minorities complain of being discriminated against. In 2017, the Christian governor of Jakarta was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.  Public caning is common, though the government has often promised that the medieval punishment will be meted out inside prisons.

Such circumstances provide fertile ground for unprincipled politics in Indonesia. Cronyism and nepotism are rife within its political and electoral system, while money politics and vote-buying remain rampant.

Cronyism and nepotism are rife within Indonesia’s political and electoral system

The country’s oligarchy arises out of a nexus between wealthy tycoons, establishment politicians and resourceful bureaucrats. Each segment works in cohort with the others to maintain an iron grip over the government. The money bags fund politicians, who in turn make policies favouring businesses – often to the detriment of the environment and public welfare. Hence the jockeying among politicians never ends, even after they retire from top positions.

A typical example is that of the General Chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Megawati Sukarnoputri. The eldest daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, she was elected as President in 2001, and earlier, as the Vice-President. She continues to lead PDI-P, one of the country’s largest parties, although she was defeated in the Presidential election in 2004 and again in 2009 by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general and the leader of the Democratic Party of Indonesia.

Jokowi’s endorsement would definitely sway the outcome

As the PDI-P won 128 (or 22.26 per cent) of the lower house seats in the 2019 election, it is the only party eligible to nominate a presidential candidate for 2024 without forming a coalition with other parties. Other parties have to form alliances to fulfil the minimum 20 per cent required to nominate a candidate. However, Megawati and President Joko Widodo donot see eye-to-eye, though they belong to the same party and Megawati endorsed Jokowi’s candidature for the presidency in 1914. On April 21, the party named Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, 54, as its candidate, with Megawati’s blessing. The candidates will actually file their nominations only in October. Till then, and perhaps beyond,the country will witness much political drama.

During the Musra (people’s discussion or consultation) organised by his supporters on May 14, Jokowi indicated in his speech that he does not necessarily support his party’s candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, for the presidency. Earlier, the Musra poll – carried out in 30 provinces to informally collect information on the choices of party volunteers and the people – showed a preference for Ganjar and Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and incumbent Defence Minister, as the top two preferred candidates. Jokowi called on his supporters to be careful while making their final choice, enigmatically adding that he would quietly inform parties which candidate he would support for the 2024 presidential election. Not surprisingly, the Musra’s list of probables includes Prabowo and Golkar chairperson Airlangga Hartarto, alongside party nominee Ganjar.

presidential candidates (left to right) Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo
THREE-HORSE RACE? Indonesia’s likely presidential candidates (l to r) GanjarPranowo, PrabowoSubianto and Anies Baswedan

Jokowi has quietly been backing the Gerindra leader, Prabowo, his erstwhile two-time presidential challenger, with whom he reconciled by giving him the defence portfolio in 2019. Jokowi’s repeated endorsement of Prabowo as a potential candidate through social media could explain the increasing support for him seen in recent opinion polls. Ganjar’s popularity took a beating after he and the PDI-P opposed Israel’s participation in the under-20 FIFA World Cup – an avoidable controversy initially whipped up by Islamic radicals in a nation that is crazy about football.

As someone considered close to Jokowi and in control of the ministry with the largest budget, Prabowo is increasingly viewed by many Islamic groups as the candidate best placed to deliver political favours and financial resources. Many influential pro-Sharia politicians have backed him;these include Fahri Hamzah, one of the co-founders of the Gelora Party, who is on record as having stated that the 71-year old Suharto-era Lieutenant General was a ‘victim’ of allegations of human rights abuses and the disappearance of scores of pro-democracy activists during the Suharto dictatorship.

Unlike the PDP-P matriarch Megawati, Jokowi has no direct influence in his party. He wants a successor who is close to him. Nevertheless, he has not burned his bridges with Ganjar and has kept his options open.

Indonesia, therefore, seems to be headed for a three-way, close-run presidential race. Opinion polls indicate that the three probable candidates are Ganjar, Prabowo (who also contested the last two presidential elections) and Anies Baswedan, 55,governor of Jakarta from 2017 to 2022. The Jakarta-based Charta Politika showed Ganjar leading with 36.6 per cent support. Prabowo and Anies were at 33.2 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively. But none had the 50 per cent needed to win the election and so there would be a second round to decide which contender takes the top post. Jokowi’s endorsement would definitely sway the outcome. Two prominent survey organisations, LSI and SMRC, found that Jokowi’s public approval ratingis as high as 82 per cent.

The Megawati dynasts are not happy and are working overtime to ensure Ganjar’s victory.  Megawati’s daughter and parliamentary speaker, Puan Maharani, met her arch-rival, Democrat Party chairman Agus Harimurti, to wean the party away from supporting Anies Baswedan’s Coalition of Change. Notably, Harimurti is the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who defeated Megawati twice in her presidential bids in 2004 and 2009.

If Yudhoyono’s seventh-ranked party withdraws support for Baswedan, the former Jakarta governor will fail to muster support for the 20 per cent of parliamentary seats needed to qualify to contest the election. Moreover, if the Democrats back Ganjar, his chances of winning will be higher. This will be a setback for the right-wing Islamists who are backing Baswedan. But when all is said and done, Jokowi remains the uncertainty factor that could tilt the scales on either side. 

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada

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