Indonesia's next V-P will be an old hand

Indonesia's next V-P will be an old hand
Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo (L) and his running mate Jusuf Kalla (R) hold Indonesian national flag during a declaration as president and vice president candidates at the Gedung Joang 45 in Jakarta on May 19, 2014.

In February 2009, two weeks after Mr Joe Biden was sworn in as US President Barack Obama's No. 2, Indonesia's then Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was the first foreign leader to call on him at the White House.

Mr Biden asked after the Indonesian economy, and was told it was in good shape, Mr Kalla recounted to Indonesian reporters accompanying him on the trip.

"In that case, let's just trade places. You be vice-president here and I'll be vice- president in Indonesia," Mr Biden reportedly said.

But a few months after that lighthearted encounter, Mr Kalla was dropped as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's No. 2. Their partnership, marked by increasing friction over Mr Kalla's independent ways, had broken down irretrievably.

Today, five years on, Mr Kalla looks poised to have another go at his old job, this time as running mate to presidential front runner Joko Widodo.

Now 72, he finds himself playing the role Mr Biden had taken on as running mate to Mr Obama - No. 2 to a popular figure 20 years younger campaigning on a message of change but lacking experience on the national stage. Mr Obama and Mr Joko are both 52.

Superficial coincidences aside, will Mr Kalla also play much the same role as Mr Biden if Mr Joko gets elected? A veteran US senator before joining Mr Obama in the White House, Mr Biden has been an active adviser, emissary and troubleshooter, both at home and abroad.

The question arises, of course, about the job scope of Indonesia's vice-president, other than taking over should the president die, be incapacitated or forced out of office, as happened with Suharto and Abdurrahman Wahid.

Should the No. 2 be a mere "spare tyre", standing in for his boss when he is away? Should he simply support the president's decisions, or can he have his say in the running of government? And how much of the limelight should he share?

In other words, is he a chief of staff or a co-captain?

Odd as it may sound, there is not much guidance from history as it has been just 10 years since the first direct presidential election was held. Prior to that, vice-presidents stayed very much in the background.

The question has come to the fore again as it was none other than Mr Kalla who was the deputy to the first directly elected president in 2004, and he was so active that he was dubbed "the real president".

He shrugged off the label by saying he was simply doing his job as "the real vice-president", be it resolving the separatist conflict in Aceh, or getting support for government policies like fuel subsidy cuts at a time when the President's Democratic Party had a much smaller presence in Parliament.

But clearly it was too much for his boss.

"There is a misunderstanding that the vice-president is a co-chairman when he is actually assisting the president who makes all the decisions," Dr Yudhoyono told reporters in 2009.

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