Indonesian politics as spectator sport

Indonesian politics as spectator sport
Three likely streams of presidential candidature emerged: PDI-P's Joko Widodo (Jokowi) (left), Gerindra's Prabowo and Golkar's Aburizal Bakrie (right), in that order of popular appeal.

INDONESIA - Nearly two weeks after legislative elections and almost three months before the presidential poll in July, the shape and colour of Indonesia's new government are still far from clear.

This is because the presidential office wields considerable prestige, if not also power, such that the make-up of the People's Consultative Assembly (Parliament) is sometimes deemed only a sideshow.

And this despite the balance of assembly seats being read as a barometer for the presidential race to come. Indonesian democracy is still relatively new, and forms of political divination are still to be tried and tested.

Nonetheless it is beyond doubt and party spin that the results of the April 9 elections disappointed every party, or at least every party that thought it mattered. Exit polls and pre-election surveys by different organisations returned remarkably similar results between the parties.

The main parties - PDI-P, Golkar, Gerindra and the Democratic Party (DP) - won votes in that order as widely anticipated. It was just that each party had overestimated its own popularity, garnering a lower proportion of votes than expected.

By law, any party with less than 25 per cent of the total vote may not govern on its own but has to form a coalition. PDI-P expected to net 27 per cent, but even as the most popular party, it had to settle for only 19 per cent.

With no party able to govern on its own, an election that might have been a battle between individual parties became one between coalitions. In practice that means hard bargaining, compromise, backroom deals, some disappointment and perhaps a betrayal or two.

Months before the July 9 presidential election, much of that has already begun. The dance of party partners in forming (would-be) coalitions has commenced, as has individual leaders' swaying, swinging, cavorting, flitting, hustling and hopping between parties.

With party loyalties being tradeable, if not downright dispensable things, Indonesian democracy is a lively and fluid sport. The fun is not only for Indonesians in going out to vote, but for everyone in observing the proceedings and the aftermath.

PDI-P is the party of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of founding president Sukarno. Golkar is the grand old party of the New Order regime of former autocratic president Soeharto, who had ruled for just over three decades.

Gerindra is the party of Soeharto's former son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, who like many presidential candidates had been a general. DP is the party of President Susilo, who established it with his senior colleagues as a presidential platform as he rose from being Megawati's vice-president.

As parties gathered to form coalitions up to a week ago, three likely streams of presidential candidature emerged: PDI-P's Joko Widodo (Jokowi), Gerindra's Prabowo and Golkar's Aburizal Bakrie, in that order of popular appeal. The other parties were seen as offering no more than vice-presidential material.

At the same time, three candidacy characters developed: the dark horse, the wild card and the favourite. The problem for the other presidential candidates is that all three character tendencies belong to candidate Jokowi.

This likeliest presidential candidate is also the unlikeliest in the Indonesian context. As far from big business, the national elite and the military as any candidate can get, and then some, this difference from the other candidates is probably also Jokowi's biggest asset.

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