Pre-election politics heating up in Indonesia
President Joko Widodo's choice of running mate could determine the tenor and tone of what is expected to be a rowdy election season
Nearly one year until Indonesia’s parliamentary and presidential polls, speculation is already rife over who President Joko Widodo will tap as his running mate. His choice could, in some ways, determine the tenor and tone of what is expected to be a politically rowdy election season.
With incumbent Vice President Jusuf Kalla legally barred from serving a third term, attention has now turned to former Constitutional Court chief justice Mohammad Mahfud, a defence and later justice minister in the short-lived government of president Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001).
Mahfud met recently with Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, Widodo’s chief political adviser and an old colleague in Wahid’s Cabinet, who is tasked with preparing the ground for the president’s re-election bid. The polls will be held on April 17, 2019
In the end, the decision rests solely with Widodo, whose choice of Kalla in 2014 was forced upon him by Indonesia Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and the prevailing political climate. This time, as a popular incumbent, the dynamics are different.
Mahfud, 60, is a prominent member of the moderate mass Muslim organization Nahdlaful Ulama, which Wahid headed for decades and which gives him the credentials Widodo may feel he needs to attract voters in the face of growing opposition from Islamic conservatives.
Appointed to a five-year term as Constitutional Court chief justice in 2008, Mahfud was the third jurist to head the country’s highest legal body since it was formed six years earlier, though politics began to tinge some of the court’s decisions under his watch.
Government sources predict Widodo will not make a final decision until July, with industry minister and newly-elected Golkar party chairman Airlangga Hartarto as another possible vice presidential running mate. Hartarto carries the advantage of Golkar’s strong political base and nationwide electoral machinery.
Next year’s first ever simultaneous legislative and presidential elections mean coalitions must be formed prior to election day, a departure from previous elections which were followed by months of political horse-trading that hindered the incoming government’s ability to get down to business.
There is even talk that if Widodo wins, as is widely expected at this point, his second Cabinet may be announced well in advance of the new administration taking power in October 2019 to ensure it gets a flying start.
In addition to his PDI-P, the Golkar, National Democrat (Nasdem), People’s Conscience and United Development (PPP) parties have all declared their support for Widodo. Based on the 2014 election results, that already puts him well over the threshold of 20% of seats or 25% of the popular vote required for him to run.
Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leader of the fourth-ranked Democrat Party (PD), has yet to decide whether he intends to shift from the neutralist position his former ruling party has maintained since the end of his presidency.
Yudhoyono has been busy promoting his eldest son, failed Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Agus Harimurti, 39, as a prospective vice presidential candidate. Although Agus met recently with Widodo, aides have pointedly told his father that he can only expect to advance his political career “step by step.”
The president already appears to be relying more on Golkar than PDI-P to secure his re-election in 2019, given his difficult relationship with Megawati and the party’s failure to get fully behind him when rival Prabowo Subianto closed in during the final weeks of the 2014 campaign.
Until now it has looked like 2019 will be a re-run of that race, but Prabowo still appears to be of two minds on whether to run at all because of financial problems that have affected his Great Indonesia Movement Party’s (Gerindra) ability to even fund regional elections in June.
With his businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, reluctant to spend the same money he did in 2014, the retired general has clearly felt the loss of media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who deserted him for the Widodo camp late last year.
That came only a few months after US President Donald Trump’s business partner helped Gerindra fund the successful Jakarta gubernatorial campaign of former education minister Anies Baswedan, who is now being touted as Prabowo’s running mate in 2019 despite an unconvincing first year as leader of the Indonesian capital.
Tanoesoedibyo switched sides after prosecutors revived an old charge accusing him of sending threatening messages to the deputy attorney general for special crimes over his alleged involvement in a 2009 tax fraud inquiry. Since then, little has been heard about the case.
Widodo advisor Panjaitan has met twice with Prabowo in recent weeks, during which the Gerindra leader remained non-committal about his plans.
The pair have had a rocky relationship over the years, but government sources say it would be preferable to have Prabowo as the rival candidate rather than someone who might bring new uncertainties into the political equation.
Islamic hard-liners responsible for organizing the mass demonstrations that brought down ethnic Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, now languishing in prison on a blasphemy charge, are looking for candidates to compete against Widodo. They apparently hope to cash in on public dissatisfaction over the lack of new political faces.
That might provide a platform for ambitious former armed forces chief Gen Gatot Nurmantyo, but any new candidate would still have to meet the required threshold, which realistically limits the field to a maximum of three presidential candidates.
Panjaitan has yet to create a formal Widodo re-election team, but he has revived Brava Lima, a group of 20 generals and other senior retirees drawn mostly from his 1970 military academy class that played a significant role in getting Widodo across the line in 2014.
At the same time, former Cabinet secretary Andi Widjajanto, 46, has been put in charge of so-called “Team Charlie”, made up of about 15 retired military officers from later generations who are committed to helping in the re-election effort.
At this point the president is being advised to only take the weekends off for campaigning, but insiders say he and Kalla have finally reached an accommodation on sharing the work load, with the latter likely to assume a greater role in running the government after October.
The president is enlisting the vice president’s help to put in place promised sweeping new reforms across a range of sectors, removing regulatory restrictions he has belatedly realized are significant barriers to the foreign investment needed to expand the economy beyond 5%.
In one recent speech, Widodo angrily railed against the bewildering array of permits confronting foreign mining companies – just one example of how an un-cooperative bureaucracy has stood in the way of allowing Indonesia to compete with countries like Vietnam, now the region’s darling for foreign direct investment.
Widodo may have to live with delays in the settlement of various controversial issues – including negotiations on US miner Freeport’s forced divestment from the world’s biggest gold and second largest copper mine – but he knows that tough decisions are needed now to improve the economy.
They also don’t carry the same political risks going into what is widely expected to be a rambunctious if not volatile election season.