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.

His most senior position is as (current) Jakarta Governor, having served for less than two years, so that even some of his friends and supporters say he lacks national political experience. Another "item" in his biodata is of having been evicted with his family from their shanty homes four times.

Jokowi's super reputation as a leader and administrator, whether real, exaggerated or imagined, has also been acknowledged abroad. In his previous post of Suriakarta mayor, the City Mayors Foundation named him third-best mayor in the world.

Some have compared Jokowi's improbably probable campaign to former US senator Barack Obama's: coming from seemingly nowhere, grabbing the popular imagination with his common touch and differentness from the others, and (as seems likely) propelling himself into the country's presidency.

There is even a Hillary Clinton equivalent in Puan Maharani, daughter of PDI-P matriarch Megawati. Some see Puan as the reason for the party's delay in nominating Jokowi, since under a veneer of democratic sentiment the president's job is still often regarded as a family business.

The PDI-P may be seen as a "privileged" party in having a choice of nominating a candidate its leadership prefers (Puan), or a candidate that can give the party better chances of victory (Jokowi). Other parties merely select a candidate and hope for the best.

Now the choice of Puan as Jokowi's running mate has come into question, in Hillary-Obama fashion. Recent reports of a rift between them, along with their respective faction loyalists, has predictably been denied.

As PDI-P is seen to fray, Golkar closes ranks and narrows the gap between the parties. Zero-sum games are played out among parties at various levels.

To the old guard of the older political traditions, Jokowi's candidacy evokes anything from mild palpitation to full-scale panic. Besides his personal stand against graft, his inner circle includes a veteran anti-corruption activist.

The Jokowi campaign may well be selling itself on "hope" and "change", or Indonesian slogans to that effect. His opponents would simply hope that he changes.

As part of the swirl of events from now until the presidential election, Susilo's DP has suddenly become something of a spoiler. From a common presumption of offering only a vice-presidential candidate, the party is now switching its prospective coalition partners in hopes of putting forward a presidential candidate of its own.

When DP was earlier expected to join with Gerindra, it is now seen to be moving with others. It recently received endorsements from the National Democratic Party (Partai Nasdem) and the broader Nadhlatul Ulama movement.

For DP to take the lead in forming its own coalition turns the July election into a four-horse race. However, that is more likely to split the non-Jokowi votes and give the PDI-P candidate better chances of victory.

Something of the cult of the individual remains, despite Indonesia's many advances in democratic governance. In virtually every party except Golkar, an individual defines the party and drives its support base.

While this can have different consequences in different political cultures, it tends to produce troubling issues where the roots of democracy have yet to grow deep. Such a feudal feature becomes particularly worrying when that society also has flexible party identities and varying personal loyalties.

But for the political campaigners in Indonesia today, the one significant outcome of this is that it favours Jokowi's candidacy. His unique image and character play well with the media, which in turn help to project his campaign further.

However, the real test of leadership comes later when an incumbent has to face down a crisis of sorts. Jokowi's relative inexperience may be an asset in his presidential campaign, but it can quickly turn into a huge liability when the nation is at its most vulnerable.

Indonesia remains a most important country in ASEAN and the region, particularly in terms of bilateral relations with Malaysia. Its political developments naturally merit close scrutiny and sound understanding.