Behind the delay in Megawati's choice

Questions hang over what role PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri (above), who has named Mr Joko Widodo as the party's presidential candidate, will want to play behind the scenes.

INDONESIAN Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri is now earning praise for making the decision to nominate wildly popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo as the party's presidential candidate.

But why did it take her so long? As far back as March last year, 51-year-old Mr Widodo had emerged as the proverbial white knight, riding out of virtually nowhere to answer the prayers of many Indonesians for someone to make a clean break from the past.

He was and is a political phenomenon, blazing a trail for those who have dreamed of a clean, well-performing regional leader bypassing the whole system and rising to the country's highest post. Even 16 years into the democratic era, it seemed impossible.

Yet, Ms Megawati dithered, which may account for a dip in Mr Widodo's popularity in the Indonesia Political Indicator's February survey.

Some said it was because she wanted to take the heat off him. Others thought the daughter of founding president Sukarno was merely relishing her role as the party's undisputed leader.

But all along she kept saying that she would not decide on a candidate until after the April 9 legislative elections, apparently hoping for some sort of miracle to change her lowly single-digit showing in the polls and give her a reason to run again.

While Sukarnoist ideologues and old guard politicians around Ms Megawati stubbornly stood their ground, the PDI-P's legislative candidates were on tenterhooks, many realising that Mr Widodo's candidacy would boost their chances of election.

Up to now, the PDI-P has hovered around 21 per cent to 23 per cent in the polls, only two or three percentage points ahead of its major rival, Golkar. Mr Widodo's nomination could elevate the party over the 35 per cent mark, more than it got amid the reformasi euphoria of 1999.

As early as last November and certainly by late December, reality was staring Ms Megawati in the face. A so-called Team of Eleven she had formed to advise her on the issue came back with the almost overwhelming recommendation that Mr Widodo was the obvious choice.

Key among her advisers were Ms Rini Soewandi, 55, the trade minister in Ms Megawati's 2001-2004 government, and academic Andi Widjajanto, 42, son of the late general and PDI-P loyalist Theo Syafei, who stood by Ms Megawati during the Suharto years.

Mr Widjajanto, an articulate graduate of Washington's prestigious National Defence University, will in fact serve as the liaison between Ms Megawati and Mr Widodo in the period leading up to the July 9 presidential election.

Although the March 15 announcement of Mr Widodo's candidacy was made by her daughter Puan Maharani, the clearest signal of all came the day before when Ms Megawati invited him to her father's grave in the East Java town of Blitar.

Insiders say Ms Megawati's daughter, the PDI-P's parliamentary leader and election campaign manager, was not informed beforehand that Mr Widodo would be joining them and, in a nod at least to Ms Megawati's pragmatism, she is not being considered for vice-president.

Whoever Mr Widodo and his motherly patron do choose as his running mate will not be known until after the parliamentary elections next month - and then it probably will not matter to the bulk of the electorate until the new administration gets down to the business of governing.

But rival parties are likely to try and persuade educated voters, at least, that Mr Widodo is little more than a populist greenhorn, ill-equipped to take the considerable step up from town hall to presidential palace.

Indeed, at the end of the day, it will be important to balance Mr Widodo's inexperience with someone who will not pose a threat politically, but will provide real input on economic and even foreign policy. In other words, a wise head.

A publicly distributed list of 10 prospective running mates comprises five civilians and five with military backgrounds. But it reportedly comes from the Team of Eleven and has not been endorsed by Ms Megawati herself.

While many younger Indonesians question why military men are still considered important allies in this day and age, Ms Megawati - and perhaps even Mr Widodo himself - is not averse to the idea. Otherwise they would not be in the mix.

Interestingly, Mr Widodo dined on the night of his nomination with one of those five generals, long-time friend Luhut Panjaitan, the Indonesian ambassador to Singapore from 1999 to 2000 and later trade minister in the ill-fated Abdurrahman Wahid administration.

Mr Panjaitan, 66, who up to now has headed the team of Golkar Party chairman and presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie, caused consternation in the Bakrie camp after he called a press conference to praise Ms Megawati's decision.

With the head of Golkar's board of patrons, Mr Akbar Tanjung, making it clear he would not mind being Mr Widodo's running mate either, Mr Bakrie's campaign already looks in tatters.

If Mr Widodo does win as expected, his biggest challenge will be harnessing the high expectations.

But do not expect populism to guide him. Insiders say he favours tough measures to deal with the current account deficit, including a sharp reduction in subsidies.

Another immediate concern is what role Ms Megawati will want to play behind the scenes, not only in naming a Cabinet, but also in trying to influence policymaking and other crucial decisions. The choice of a vice-president will be the first real test.

After all, the way she has always run the party is hardly democratic. As a former president, she may well feel the need to stay relevant and ensure the Sukarno name and nationalist ideology remain at the forefront of a new administration.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the careful deference Mr Widodo shows Ms Megawati is a sign he will bow to all her wishes. The more he grows into the job, the more his sense of independence is likely to grow. The country's future and the hopes of Indonesia's younger generation are riding on it.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

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Indonesia General Election 2014