Pre-election jockeying rides wild in Indonesia
Joko Widodo is streets ahead of rivals in a race that could yet be co-opted by radicals keen to portray the front-running president as 'un-Islamic'
If anyone doubts the warm feelings deposed Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama still has for his former boss, President Joko Widodo, look no further than the extra nine months imprisonment he has given himself to avoid roiling the political waters during the upcoming presidential election campaign.
Nearly two-thirds into a two-year jail sentence on what many of his supporters believe was a trumped-up blasphemy charge, the ethnic Chinese Christian popularly known as “Ahok” is eligible to be released from the Police Mobile Brigade detention center next month.
Instead, he has decided to forego parole and serve out his full term that ends in May next year shortly after the 2019 presidential elections, when his eventual release can’t conceivably be used as a political weapon against the opinion poll-topping Widodo.
The pair teamed up to win the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2012, earning praise for their efforts to improve the quality of life in the capital. When Widodo stepped down, Purnama took over as the city’s first Christian governor already facing opposition from racist radical Islamic groups.
One rhetorical misstep during a campaign speech in 2016 sealed his fate, even though many Muslim constituents acknowledged they would have voted for him if he had been judged on his performance in the job alone.
Recent prison visitors have found him dispirited over his messy divorce from his wife of 20 years, which surfaced at the height of his political troubles, and say he is seriously contemplating an invitation to teach public policy at Harvard University in the United States.
According to sources close to the palace, Purnama has earned Widodo’s gratitude when he is deliberating who to pick as his running mate, still apparently worried about the so-called 212 Movement that brought down Purnama and is fond of calling the president “un-Islamic.”
That’s despite the fact that while blatant primordial tactics may have been a decisive factor in last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial race, the recent round of local elections across half of the country’s 34 provinces showed it is not nearly so potent on a wider national stage.
Indeed, a recent study of the 212 Movement by political scientists Marcus Mietzner and Burhanuddin Muhtadi Dua found the main trend among Indonesian Muslims in recent years has been a shift in the epicenter of conservative-radical attitudes from the lower to the middle classes.
Widodo provided a glimmer of clarity last week by confirming he has a short-list of four candidates, including former Constitutional Court chief justice Mohammad Mahfud MD, Golkar Party chairman Airlangga Hartarto, and West Nusa Tenggara governor Muhammad Zainul Madji, recently named the health ministry’s ambassador of breastfeeding.
But confusing the picture is Vice President Jusuf Kalla, once thought to have the inside running, who may still be in the frame while lawyers seek to reverse last month’s Constitutional Court decision preventing him from seeking a third vice presidential term.
With nominations closing on August 10 – and Widodo reportedly delaying a final choice until he sees the character of the opposition — Mahfud and Hartarto look the most likely at this point. But in a political situation that remains fluid, the final decision is Widodo’s and his alone.
That will be defined by the relative value he places in a candidate’s religious and political credentials. As a graduate of the State Islamic University and chairman of the Islamic Students Alumni Association, Mahfud fits both criteria, similar in fact to Kalla.
Mahfud reportedly has the blessing of Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairperson of Widodo’s own Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) whose late husband, Taufik Kiemas, enjoyed a close relationship with the 61-year-old jurist from the religiously conservative East Java island of Madura.
Defense and later justice minister in the administration of president Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2000), Mahfud served as a National Awakening Party (PKB) legislator between 2004 and 2008 before being appointed to a five-year term on the Constitutional Court, where he was criticized for allowing politics to tinge some of the court’s decisions.
Hartarto, 55, the current industry minister and the Australian-educated son of a Suharo-era economic coordinating minister, is well-liked by Widodo and has spent a lot of private time with the president since he played a key role in getting him elected to the Golkar chairmanship last December.
All that was taken as a telling sign, but many commentators doubt the president will choose him, arguing it will cause jealousy among the ranks of PDI-P and the United Development (PPP), National Democrat (NasDem) and People’s Conscience (Hanura) parties that are already committed to staying with the ruling coalition.
For other analysts that makes little sense when Golkar is the country’s second largest party and has the national machinery to give Widodo a major boost at the polls. Memories are still fresh of how poorly PDI-P performed during the 2014 election, which was a lot closer than anticipated with Golkar and its leader, Aburizal Bakrie, then supporting Prabowo.
Governor Madji, 46, whose province in the Nusa Tenggara chain covers the large islands of Lombok and Sumbawa, is a genuine dark horse. Although he has been part of ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s centrist Democrat Party since 2013, he has made it clear his loyalties now lie with Widodo.
One of an emerging crop of young talent from the provinces, Madji spent a decade in Egypt earning a doctorate at the prestigious Al-Azhar University before returning to Lombok to win a seat for the Sharia-based Crescent Star Party (PBB) in the 2004 parliamentary elections.
Since being elected governor in 2008, he has won a string of awards for his work in numerous fields, particularly in improving agriculture and investment. He is probably best known, however, for his energetic promotion of breast-feeding and family planning.
Another possible contender is ambitious PKB chairman Muhaimin Askander, 51, a Jombang, East Java native, who theoretically can call on the support of elements of the 40 million-strong mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, from which the party sprung in the late 1990s.
Muhaimin has kept PKB out of the ruling coalition as leverage, but with Mahfud still a party member and newly elected East Java Governor Khofifah Parawansa, a former PKB legislator and social affairs minister, declaring herself a Widodo loyalist, the ground appears to have shifted under his feet.
As for Kalla, 76, Indonesia’s man for all seasons, any opening rests on the tenuous legal argument that the Constitution bans candidates from seeking a third term only if they have held the vice presidency for two consecutive terms.
Interestingly, the judicial review has been brought by lawyers for the new United Indonesia Party (Perindo) of media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibyo, who abandoned his previous support for Prabowo last year and moved over to the Widodo camp.
The vice president’s office did not respond to Asia Times’ request for comment, but legal sources say Pelindo became involved because the court would only accept a second deposition for a case review from a political party that did not take part in the 2014 legislative elections.
Prabowo, leader of the opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), is so far the only declared presidential candidate, despite doubts he has the will and, more importantly, the money to mount a campaign that will seriously challenge Widodo — as he did in 2014.
A Muslim from a family of Christians, the retired general has yet to gain the backing of his opposition partner, the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), that would allow him to meet the nomination threshold of 20% of the 2014 popular vote without the support of the two other floaters, PKB and the National Mandate Party (PAN).
Yudhoyono’s fourth-ranked Democrat Party (DP) remains on the fence while he seeks to create a third force to advance the career of his eldest son, Agus Harimurti, 38, who left the army in 2017 to run unsuccessfully in the Jakarta election. But that possibility seems remote considering he would need the support of both PKB and PAN to meet the threshold.
Yudhoyono and Prabowo are still talking. Their two parties together would easily eclipse the threshold, yet something is holding them back that could have as much to do with their poor personal chemistry as other factors, including Harimurti’s greenhorn credentials.
As the August 10 deadline approaches and a two-horse race becomes more apparent, the Yudhoyonos may be faced with the choice of either joining the ruling coalition and securing a Cabinet post or two, or staying where they are and possibly condemning themselves to another fives year of political irrelevance.