Can Prabowo take Widodo’s crown?
Indonesian general-cum-politician is making the right moves to give the high-flying president a run for his money at next April's election
Retired Indonesian generals-cum-politicians Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prabowo Subianto may well have included a dress code in their Orders of the Day, but when they and the ex-president’s son emerged from a July 24 meeting the uniform array of brown batik shirts seemed to say it all.
Formalized at a second session six days later, the budding alliance between the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) and Democrat parties makes for what one Democrat strategist calls a “powerful team” to take on popular incumbent Joko Widodo in next April’s much-anticipated presidential election.
But with Widodo apparently holding off until the August 10 nomination deadline to announce his own choice, the party leaders have yet to confirm definitively whether Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, 39, will be the 66-year-old Prabowo’s running mate in his second bid at the presidency.
Widodo’s ruling coalition says the Gerindra-Democrat team-up comes as no real surprise. “At the end of it all, he had no alternative,” said one senior government official, describing the prospective presidential challengers as a “six or seven” on a scale of 10. “He (Prabowo) needs the money.”
Prabowo has often acknowledged he is short of funds to mount a credible challenge to Widodo on the campaign trail. His businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is reportedly unwilling to repeat the financier role he played in 2014; media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo deserted him last year for Widodo’s camp.
Neither the Justice and Prosperity (PKS) nor the National Mandate (PAN) parties, the two other prospective opposition partners, have the finances to mount an effective challenge to the high-flying president.
The Democrats, by all accounts, do. Indeed, well-placed sources say at one of their earlier meetings Yudhoyono told Prabowo, in so many words, that his money problems would be over if he chose Harimurti as his running mate.
Together, the third and fourth-ranked parties also hold 23.9% of the 560 seats allocated by the 2014 legislative elections, or 22% of the popular vote. That easily meets the 20% threshold needed to field a presidential candidate under the country’s Election Law.
The latest development is likely to have given the president a lot more food for thought as he weighs his own choices for running mate. “He’s still obviously thinking and re-thinking what to choose,” says the Democrat strategist. “We think the pressure is now on him to find someone to help him win the election.”
Indeed, not only does Widodo have to weigh all the political and religious factors, but he also has to satisfy his six coalition partners and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the notoriously fickle matriarch of his ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P).
Prabowo has pointedly said that he needs a vice presidential candidate that can communicate with the younger generation who comprise a large chunk of the electorate, including as many as 70 million first-time voters.
But he is keen to draw the Sharia-based PKS into his coalition to attract the conservative Muslim vote, which played a key role in last year’s defeat of former Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama and may be a factor again on the wider electoral stage.
Openly hostile to Widodo for being “un-Islamic,” PKS has continued to talk up the potential of current Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 49, prominent young North Sumatran cleric Abdul Somad, 41, and the party’s advisory council chairman, Salim Segaf Al-Jufri, 64.
First Prabowo and then Yudhoyono met with Segaf on July 30 in an effort to get PKS on board. The former social affairs minister in Yudhoyono’s second Cabinet, he still teaches at Jakarta’s Saudi-funded Islamic Institute of Sciences and Arabic (LIPIA), the Wahabi alma mater of many Indonesian Islamists.
PAN, for its part, has a serious rift in its ranks, with party chairman Zulkifli Hasan favoring a return to the ruling coalition and influential advisory council head Amien Rais, a former chairman of the People Consultative Assembly (MPR), pushing to join the opposition.
PAN sources say things will come to a head at a leadership meeting early next week. At this point it appears most support is for Prabowo, which is likely to trigger the defection of some of its leaders.
But the party may have bigger problems to worry about. After winning a commendable 8.7% of the vote in 2014, there are signs it may struggle to top the 4% threshold now needed for parliamentary representation in next year’s legislative elections.
Prabowo’s earlier reluctance to consider Harimurti stemmed in part from the fact that he, a retired three-star general, would be partnering with a mere major, the younger Yudhoyono’s rank before he left the armed forces in 2016 to make an unsuccessful bid for the Jakarta governorship.
Relations between Prabowo and Yudhoyono were strained as well, largely because the former president – then chief of staff for territorial affairs — sat on the honor council that drummed Prabowo out of the armed forces for alleged insubordination following former president Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.
In fact, the elder Yudhoyono had sought to join the ruling coalition last year, but Widodo and his senior aides made it clear in a series of private meetings that they regarded Harimurti as too young and inexperienced to stand a heart-beat away from the presidency.
Yudhoyono put his own spin on things, claiming the real obstacle had been PDI-P chairperson Megawati, who has never forgiven him for what she considered an act of betrayal in ousting her from the leadership in 2004 in the country’s first direct presidential election.
“In reality, the relationship between Megawati and I has not fully recovered,” he told a July 26 press conference in his first public comment on the issue. “There is still distance between us.”
In fact, it is more like a gulf, which would have been impossible to bridge so long as Yudhoyono wanted his son to become vice president.
As it stands, Harimurti ranks only third as a Prabowo running mate behind outspoken former armed forces commander General Gatot Nurmantyo and Governor Baswedan in the latest Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) poll released earlier this month.
But Nurmantyo does not have a party to back his bid and Baswedan’s popularity is still unproven beyond Jakarta, where he is receiving mixed reviews as a capable administrator and has yet to face his first major challenge when Indonesia hosts the 18th Asian Games this month.