Parties and politicians already jostling for position ahead of February 2024 presidential and legislative elections
By JOHN MCBETH
JAKARTA – One of Indonesia’s senior-most politicians, black-bearded National Democrat Party (Nasdem) chairman Surya Paloh appears to see himself as an unlikely kingmaker as parties begin jostling for position ahead of the Valentine’s Day 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
The wily 71-year-old Aceh-born media magnate was among the first to endorse President Joko Widodo when he ran for the presidency in 2014; in elections five years later his party gained significantly more seats in the 575-seat House of Representatives.
This time, he has announced Nasdem’s preference for three presidential candidates – poll-topping Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and current armed forces commander Andika Perkasa.
“All three are equal in my eyes,” he said at Nasdem’s national working meeting last June, failing to explain his choice of Perkasa, who retires in November without any obvious pathway to the civilian leadership. “At the right time, I will choose one of the three.”
Defense Minister and Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) patron Prabowo Subianto, who is vying with Pranowo at the top of the polls, was a notable exclusion. Paloh suggested the 70-year-old retired general was too old to contest a third bid for the presidency.
Republika columnist Ilham Bintang points out that Paloh is different from his contemporaries because he has never been tempted to use the party to satisfy a lust for power. Instead, he likens him to a film producer arranging “an exclusive contract with a top artist.”
“Paloh has set himself up as someone who can dictate the early moves,” one analyst says of a man who founded Nasdem in 2011 after ending a 40-year association with the once all-powerful Golkar Party. “He ticks more winners and always sticks to the selection he has made.”
While that hardly qualifies him as a kingmaker, Paloh’s strenuous efforts to form alliances with Golkar and Gerindra, the second and third ranked parties, demonstrate once again how democracy Indonesia-style has evolved.
“It’s all a bit unseemly, but there’s a certain pragmatism to it as well,” says the analyst. “While they are all fanciful and dewy-eyed in the West about what a democracy should be, in Indonesia it is in many ways a reflection of society itself.
“There are various dynamics in play, but you still have to argue there is real competition among the parties,” he asserts. “What is deeply disturbing, however, is the inability of the electorate to influence events in government once it is in power.”
Indonesia’s preference for so-called rainbow coalitions was strikingly illustrated in August last year when Widodo invited the National Mandate Party (PAN) into his second-term administration.
Political sources say the only obvious reason to bring the party in from the cold was to secure its support for moves at the time to extend the president’s term beyond 2024, an issue that continues to be pushed by Widodo’s faithful.
It was only 10 months later that party leader Zulkifli Hasan was appointed trade minister in the place of incumbent Muhammad Lutfi, an independent technocrat sacked for his alleged mishandling of the palm oil crisis.
The new minister promptly found himself in hot water for distributing free cooking oil among constituents to help his son campaign for a DPR seat in the southern Sumatran province of Lampung.
With the opposition solely represented by the Islamic-leaning Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) – and likely to stay so given the current divide – all eight other parties are intent on securing a place in the next ruling coalition and, crudely put, sharing in the spoils of state.
Still, it’s hard to understand Golkar’s early move last May to join forces with PAN and the Indonesian Development Party (PP), both of which are lingering below the 4%-of-the-vote threshold in the polls that would deny them representation in the DPR.
Like a horse without a jockey, the so-called United Indonesia Coalition (KIB) is seeking to establish relevance as a bloc currently boasting 25% of House seats. Remarked PPP deputy chairman Arsul Sani: “If the KIB has to offer its humble platform to an outsider, then we will consider nominating one.”
Fifth-ranked Nasdem controls 59 seats, 23 more than it won in its first legislative election in 2014 when it was criticized by the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission for using Paloh’s Metro TV news network for excessive coverage of the party.
The only party staying aloof from all the early pre-election jostling is ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) – and that’s because it has enough seats (128)to nominate a president on its own.
According to a Kompas survey taken last June, it also leads the polls with 22.6%, comfortably ahead of Gerindra (12.5%), the Democrat Party (11.6%) and Golkar (10.3%), followed by the National Awakening Party (PKB) and PKS, both with 5.4%, and Nasdem at 4.1%.
Unless Indonesia’s political system is turned on its head in the coming six months, it will be left to Megawati – and Megawati alone – to decide who could ultimately become the most favored candidate in Indonesia’s fifth direct presidential election.
She has a simple but difficult choice between Pranowo or her daughter, DPR Speaker Puan Maharani, to carry the party’s banner. Every survey indicates that is a choice between a winner and a loser by a yawning margin.
Megawati insists she won’t be swayed by public opinion – until she is confronted with political reality, as in 2014 when she was forced to set aside her own ambitions and pick Widodo as the obvious presidential candidate.
In recent days, one senior party member has been quietly telling friends he believes Pranowo is “unstoppable,” noting that Megawati is starting to change her mind over a popular figure who remains as loyal to her as he has always been.
It makes no sense she would settle for Puan as a running mate to a candidate from another party, such as Prabowo, who is expected to declare his third bid for the presidency at Gerindra’s annual congress this weekend.
That may explain why Prabowo is already hedging his bets by securing an early alliance with Muhaimin Iskander’s fourth-ranked PKB, nominally the political arm of the powerful mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama.
Safe to say it is a largely meaningless marriage. The ambitious Iskander may be able to deliver leading elements of PKB but he can’t guarantee the support of the NU, which proved crucial in Widodo’s 2019 election victory.
Headed by an executive council loyal to the moderate line taken by the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, the mass Muslim organization has about 35 million card-carrying members but can deliver far more votes than that at election time.
Analysts believe 2024 could turn into a three-horse race, with two nationalist candidates, Prabowo and Pranowo, and the 53-year-old Baswedan heading a right-wing, Islamic ticket in what would be the first of two rounds of voting. That hasn’t happened since 2009.
Puan may well be satisfied with becoming PDI-P leader when the 75-year-old Megawati finally retires from politics, possibly as early as 2024. But even there she is reportedly in a struggle with her reclusive half-brother, Prananda Prabowo, 52.
In a report last year, Detiknews warned the rivalry between the two could disturb PDI-P solidarity. A similar rift is also threatened by the Puan-Pranowo face-off, though party members are unlikely to openly challenge Megawati’s authority on that issue.
A three-term legislator and former human development minister, Puan is the only daughter of businessman-politician Taufiq Kiemas, Megawati’s third husband, who was speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly from 2009 until his death in 2013.
A rock musician in his leisure time, Prananda is Megawati’s second son from her first husband, Lieutenant Surindro Supjarso, who was killed at the age of 26 in a Skyvan transport plane crash in waters off northern Papua in January 1970, shortly after Megawati’s father and national independence hero Sukarno’s death.
The couple had been married only two years, living for most of that time at Madiun airbase in East Java, where only now they are naming a building after the long-dead pilot, often described as the love of Megawati’s life.
Prananda first appeared on the political stage when he attended the opening of the 2010 PDI-P congress in Bali. He was later included in the party’s management team for 2015-2020 as head of the party’s creative economy sector. He is also said to write many of Megawati’s speeches.
Despite preferring to stay in the background, people who know him say he has more grit than his half-sister, who has few close associates and, according to critics, lacks the charisma needed to elevate her electability beyond single digits.
That alone would explain Puan’s fixation with securing the leadership of PDI-P, which would theoretically give her the same power Megawati continues to enjoy 18 years after failing to win re-election in the country’s first-ever direct presidential race.