Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party down but not out

APRIL 20 — One of the surprising outcomes from Indonesia’s Legislative Election was that the Democratic Party (PD) managed to escape a heavily-predicted end, taking fourth place in the unofficial vote tally.

Several early counts showed that PD, which was founded to support Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidential bid in 2004, garnered nearly 10 per cent of the popular vote, proving wrong pre-election surveys that the party would barely scrape through with five to seven  per cent of the vote, following its decline in popularity.

This is merely half the votes it took in the 2009 election, but gives enough bargaining power to the PD in the ongoing political negotiations that precede the July 9 presidential election.

As none of the three top political parties — the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), Golkar and Gerindra — meet the 25-per cent parliamentary threshold to nominate a president, they need to form a coalition with smaller parties.

In the days after the April 9 election, Democrats were touted as a potential partner for Gerindra. But this week, PD signalled its intention to challenge the three top presidential candidates: Joko Widodo of the PDI-P, Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra and Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar.

On Tuesday, party executives said it would go on with its presidential convention, which attracted little media attention since it started last year. This convention is aimed at selecting a presidential candidate among the 11 participants that include Cabinet ministers, government officials and party cadres.

So muted was the influence of the convention that one of my sources in PDI-P said that at least one participant had been actively lobbying the party to be Joko’s running mate.

In an interview aired on YouTube with the party’s media outlet, Suara Demokrat, chairman Yudhoyono said PD was still open to both possibilities: forming a coalition with either of the top three candidates, or staying “independent” and nominating its own candidate.

All will depend on the results of the electability of its candidates at the end of this month, he said.

This led to speculation that PD would form a fourth coalition, grouping with Islamic parties including PAN, PKS, and, possibly, PPP or PKB — a combination that would make up over 25 per cent of the parliamentary votes.

Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party is on the wane, but still retains enough support to remain a player in Indonesia’s presidential election. — Reuters pic
Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party is on the wane, but still retains enough support to remain a player in Indonesia’s presidential election. — Reuters pic

Among the top candidates from PD’s presidential convention is media tycoon of the Jawa Post Group, Dahlan Iskan, who is currently the Minister of State-owned Enterprises.

But seeing that it might be hard to rival the electability of both Joko and Prabowo, experts say a PD-led coalition is not likely aimed at winning the presidential election. Instead, it is directed at splitting the vote so that there will be no outright winner, requiring the election to go into two rounds.

This will give the PD-led coalition a chance to throw their support behind whoever goes through to the second round (mostly likely the Jokowi and the Prabowo tickets), at a higher political cost, of course.

For a while, Democratic Party was one of the success stories in post-Suharto politics. In 2004, it won 7.5 per cent votes, plugging itself as a nationalist, centrist and modern party.

In 2009, its votes nearly tripled to 21 per cent due to a lack of significant challenge and the perceived success of Yudhoyono’s administration. In both elections, the law only required parties to meet the 3.5 per cent popular election in order to nominate a president.

To strengthen its support in Parliament, PD formed a coalition government with all but three of the nine parties, but this coalition has often proved fragile, with members of the coalition often at odds with some government policies.

In the last two years, however, the party’s popularity has steadily declined because of major corruption cases involving its senior members. In 2013, Yudhoyono took over the party’s helm, after its chairman Anas Urbaningrum resigned following investigations into a corruption case allegedly involving him.

PD may have lost half its previous votes in this election, but it still has the potential to be a game changer. In the climate thick with horse trading that follows a legislative election, Indonesian politicos and the media sometimes use the term poros (axis) to refer to emerging political blocs.

After the first post-Suharto election in 1999, the so-called “Central Axis” or Poros Tengah, a grouping of mostly Islamic parties and Golkar succeeded in putting in power President Abdurrahman Wahid, although Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P had the most votes in the legislative election.

At the time, Parliament still elected the president. It became apparent later that Megawati’s reluctance to “play politics” with other parties led to her failure to capitalise on her party’s victory, costing her the presidency.

Wahid was eventually impeached by Parliament, and replaced by his deputy, Megawati, but the episode deserves to be seen as a cautionary tale for every leading presidential candidate in Indonesia. In the ever-shifting landscape of Indonesian politics: never take anything for granted and always be on the lookout for surprises like Poros Tengah.

Forming the “Fourth Axis”, as one political pundit calls it, might just be PD’s ticket to be part of the next government, or at least to stay relevant.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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