JAKARTA – For the best part of a year, Defense Minister and Great Indonesian Movement Party leader Prabowo Subianto had kept National Awakening Party (PKB) coalition partner Muhaimin Iskander dangling over whether he would choose him as his running mate for next February’s presidential election.
Together, the two parties had more than the 20% of parliamentary seats necessary to nominate Prabowo as a candidate, but with the Golkar and National Mandate (PAN) parties recently joining Prabowo’s campaign team, Iskander finally lost his usefulness. And he knew it.
That was when wily National Democrat Party (Nasdem) leader and media baron Surya Paloh pounced, luring Iskander away to join opposition candidate Anies Baswedan in a move that left observers wondering to what extent President Joko Widodo had a role in bringing it about – and why.
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Still unexplained is what happened at meetings in the days beforehand between the president and the bearded businessman, who was the first senior politician to endorse Widodo in 2014 and again to turn his back on their ruling coalition and surprisingly throw his support behind Baswedan earlier this year.
The pair first met on July 18 during which Paloh acknowledged that the president inquired about Baswedan’s prospective choice of a running mate, but he did not go into further detail. Iskander again was the topic when they met at the palace on August 31, two days before Baswedan’s vice president announcement.
The strange twist in events, coming shortly before next month’s formal registration of candidates, raised more questions than it answered over the game the ever-popular Widodo may be playing behind the scenes to extend his influence beyond the day he steps down after his two-term limit in October next year.
As a nominal member of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), Widodo has already raised eyebrows by failing to openly support PDI-P candidate Ganjar Pranowo, who recently ended his decade-long term as governor of Central Java.
Ganjar Pranowo will carry the ruling PDI-P’s banner at next year’s presidential election. Image: Twitter
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Indeed, given the tensions between the president and Megawati, there is widespread speculation that Prabowo spurned Iskander because he has his eyes on State Enterprise Minister Erik Thohir, a close Widodo aide, as his vice presidential candidate.
Nominally linked to PAN, Thohir, 53, is a wealthy businessman well known for successfully staging the 2018 Asian Games and to many young soccer-mad voters as chairman of the Indonesian Football Association.
Even Widodo has felt compelled to address his fence-sitting, seemingly irritated at the way politicians – Prabowo included – have suggested they need his approval before making any moves that will impact on the race to choose his successor.
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“Every time someone asks who the president or vice president will be, the answer always is ‘There has been no instruction or direction from Pak Lura (village headman)’,” Widodo complained last month.
“I was confused what they meant. In the end, I understood it was me, so I answered ‘I’m not a village head, I’m only the president of the Republic of Indonesia. I must stress here I’m not the chairman of a political party or a coalition.”
Baswedan’s subsequent confirmation of Iskander as his vice presidential candidate led to former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party (DP) breaking away from the opposition camp and offering itself to one of the two front-runners, Prabowo or Pranowo.
An angry Democrat statement claimed Baswedan had on several occasions promised he would choose Yudhoyono’s son, party chairman Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, as his running mate, the last time in a publicly-released handwritten letter on August 25.
It is unclear how Paloh was able to use such influence, but he had recently portrayed the 45-year-old Yudhoyono Jr as a political novice who had not got beyond the rank of major before his father cut short his military career in 2016 and compelled him to enter politics.
“Anies is so dependent on Surya Paloh and he follows him whatever he decides,” says a DP source, noting that while the Democrats can go elsewhere, the other coalition partner, the right-leaning Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), is bound solely to Baswedan because of its strong conservative Muslim following
Anies Baswedan (3rd-L) greets people at Monas Square during a reunion rally held by 212 Rally Alumni in Jakarta, December 2, 2018. Photo: Asia Times Files / Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency
Analysts believe that on the surface, at least, Megawati needs the Democrats more than Prabowo, particularly in an inevitable second round of voting when the expected discarding of Baswedan in the first round on February 24 will see most of his supporters voting for Prabowo.
So far, the notoriously vindictive Megawati can’t throw off her lingering animosity towards Yudhoyono Sr, which goes back to when he defeated her in the 2004 presidential race, the country’s first direct election since the 1998 fall of then-president Suharto.
Only last month, PDI-P negotiators broke the ice by initiating a meeting with the Democrats. But since then, Yudhoyono Sr has confirmed Megawati is only prepared to deal with her son, adding: “My personal relationship with Ibu Mega is poor.”
More than that, a well-placed Democrat source says the PDI-P leadership has made any high-level talks between the two parties dependent on the Democrats declaring their prior backing for Pranowo. “It’s difficult for us to accept that,” he told Asia Times. “It’s not dignified.”
Prabowo has made no such demands, but then he is aware that the Democrats’ own expectations rest solely on securing a share of Cabinet posts and nothing more. Under Indonesia’s political rules, parties must belong to a coalition in a presidential election.
The spectacle of Yudhoyono Sr and Prabowo singing together this week stands in stark contrast to Megawati’s continuing refusal so far to meet the 74-year-old Democrat patron in person. As one close aide put it: “It’s all from her. We don’t have a problem at all.”
With the General Election Commission (KPU) bringing forward and shortening the registration window for presidential and vice presidential candidates, Prabowo and Megawati now have between October 10-16 to make their choices.
Megawati appears to be showing a lot more pragmaticism by leaning towards Ridwan Kamil, 51, a professional architect and the innovative former West Java governor who ended his term on September 5 and only recently held a long meeting with the matriarch at her downtown residence.
If he is Megawati’s chosen one, it would be the first time governors from neighboring provinces have run on the same ticket and signal a growing new development in national politics where figures from the Jakarta elite are reduced to playing second fiddle to provincial politicians on a trail blazed by Widodo himself.
Kamil only joined Golkar last January in a move to help arrest the third-ranked party’s fading fortunes in legislative general elections; the former Suharto political machine’s representation is now at a record low of 12.3% of parliamentary seats, down from 21.5% in 2004.
Although the party is now aligned with Prabowo, Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto, the economic coordinating minister, and other party leaders have reportedly said they will not stand in the way of their popular new recruit accepting the post.
Apart from standing a better chance of attracting more votes for Pranowo from Muslim voters in populous West Java, Kamil’s popularity also extends to other parts of Java and to Sulawesi, where he is well known as the designer of Makassar’s unique, orange-painted 99 Domes Mosque.
Analysts are curious how PKB, often seen as mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulma’s (NU) political arm, will work with PKS, which has supported Baswedan from the beginning and primarily draws on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as its main sources of ideological and organizational inspiration.
Most of PKS’s support comes from West Java and West Sumatra, where Widodo suffered heavy defeats in 2014 and 2019, while PKB voters are concentrated in the NU heartland of east and Central Java.
Although the size of coalitions is not a key factor in a presidential election, analysts already believe it is Prabowo’s race to lose. The controversy that ensued after Iskandar switched horses also intensified speculation the candidate had narrowed down his selection to either Thohir or chief political minister Mahfud MD, another trusted member of Widodo’s Cabinet.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is leading in polls to become Indonesia’s next president. Image: Twitter / Benar / Screengrab
After efforts by Widodo’s supporters to test the waters on whether he might be able to secure a third term were soundly rebuffed, the president may see Thohir as a bridge between his and the next administration, using his endorsement as a powerful inducement.
Securing his legacy, especially his US$33 billion plan to move the national capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, clearly remains firmly in Widodo’s mind as he continues to ward off lame-duck status in his final year.
How else to explain moves in the Constitutional Court to lower the minimum age for a president from 40 to 35, widely seen as an effort to allow Widodo’s son, 35-year-old Solo town mayor Gibran Rakabuming, to enter the 2024 race as a prospective running mate?
That is unlikely to happen, mostly because pursuing such a nakedly political goal would run the same risk of tarring his popularity as trying to extend his term in office.