Indonesia’s presidential candidates hostage to smaller parties?

APRIL 27 — After the election comes the scapegoating. In the time-honoured tradition of Indonesian post-reform politics, elections provide a good excuse for parties to change leadership, particularly when the results are not to their satisfaction. Often this causes major infighting, sometimes leading to party breakups with members leaving to form a new party.

This week saw the near crumbling of the United Development Party (PPP), Indonesia’s longest-running Islamic party, after its chairman Suryadharma Ali was accused of breaching the party line with his endorsement of Prabowo Subianto’s presidential candidacy.

Top PPP officials said Suryadharma’s support for Prabowo, of the Gerindra Party, eroded the party’s votes on the April 9 Legislative Election, although unofficial counts have shown that its votes actually rose from 5.3 per cent in 2009 to 6.3 per cent this year.

Ignoring his detractors, Suryadharma, who is also the religious affairs minister, reiterated his support for Prabowo and declared a coalition with Gerindra a week after the election.

Some of PPP’s top officials, who had preferred to side with the other leading presidential contender, Joko Widodo, were angered by his decision and began the move to oust their chairman. Suryadharma fought back by firing some officials.

The drama ended and a breakup was finally averted on Thursday after a two-day national party congress. A teary-eyed Suryadharma apologised for his move and said his party would withdraw its support for Prabowo.

PPP’s internal dynamics highlighted the crucial issue of Indonesia’s oligarchic politics and the disproportionate role of medium-sized parties in determining the course of the presidential election.

With only about 12 per cent of the votes, Gerindra had counted on PPP’s support to bump up its number, as it looked for other parties to help meet the presidential threshold of 25 per cent in popular votes. Now Gerindra is back to square one.

Like Gerindra, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) has had its shares of headaches when it comes to forming a coalition.

For PDI-P’s candidate Jokowi, Joko’s popular moniker, the National Democratic Party’s support with 7 per cent of the votes may be sufficient to nominate him, but it’s still not enough to ensure a landslide victory that could prevent a risky two-round election.

The endorsement of Prabowo Subianto’s presidential candidacy plunged Indonesia’s longest-running Islamic party, the United Development Party (PPP) into a crisis after its chairman Suryadharma Ali was accused of breaching the party line. — AFP pic
The endorsement of Prabowo Subianto’s presidential candidacy plunged Indonesia’s longest-running Islamic party, the United Development Party (PPP) into a crisis after its chairman Suryadharma Ali was accused of breaching the party line. — AFP pic

Meanwhile smaller parties, like the Nation’s Awakening Party and the National Mandate Party, had put up too high “political prices” for their support.

Transactional negotiations may force even the most idealistic presidential candidates to play the game, particularly in choosing a running mate. Jokowi will eventually face the options of pairing up with a sidekick of his choice or with one he does not favour but who has larger political capital

A party insider said Jokowi was hesitant about choosing a running mate from a political party, fearing he might be at the mercy of the party’s many demands (such as strategic Cabinet posts).

An alliance with Golkar Party’s Jusuf Kalla, who is touted as his potential running mate, for example, might mean a lot of compromise for him.

Kalla’s previous track record as the most effective vice president to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004-2009 has caused some apprehension that, as a deputy, he might undermine the leadership of Jokowi, who is also many years his junior.

Non-political party running mates, who may come from the military background such as TNI Commander General Moeldoko, and retired generals Ryamizard Ryacudu and Luhut Panjaitan, might resolve this issue of loyalty. But all will depend on the official results of the legislative elections on May 7-9.

Parties need to submit the names of their tickets within a week after this announcement. If the horse-trading continues to frustrate the formation of a solid and real political alliance, the candidates will likely end up with fragile and highly transactional coalitions.

A senior politician once told me that unless the presidential threshold system is changed to a one that allows only the top three or five parties to nominate a candidate regardless of their votes, Indonesian politics would always be held hostage by smaller parties.

As a result, political oligarchy in the country will be even more cemented, leaving the real constituents out of the equation.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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