Indonesia's top contender for presidency sparks backlash after 'ready' comment

Observers say Ganjar's comments are likely to have ruffled feathers of elites within the PDIP party for talking out of turn.
PHOTO: Instagram/Ganjar Pranowo

Indonesia's popular Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo's remarks that he is "ready" to be named his party's presidential candidate may have marred his chances to become the leader of the world's third-largest democracy, analysts say.

Ganjar has often topped polls on the preferred candidate to replace outgoing President Joko Widodo, whose term ends in 2024, but observers said his comments last Wednesday (Oct 19) were likely to have ruffled feathers of elites within the PDIP party for talking out of turn.

Asked during a TV interview if he was willing to run in the election, he answered: "If it's for the [interests of the] nation and the people, we are ready [to do anything that is required of us]."

The answer marked the first time Ganjar had made a clear reference to his prospects at the presidential poll, but were seen as a breakaway from the party's tradition, prompting chairwoman Megawati to remind her cadres not to act one step ahead of the command.

"About the presidential election, [Megawati emphasised] on the importance of being patient, for all cadres. Do not hurry," PDIP's general secretary Hasto Kristiyanto told reporters on Sunday.

Ganjar was summoned by the party to "clarify" his statement on Monday afternoon.

"Ganjar knows that his party has its own culture, that president and vice-presidential nominees can only be chosen by the party during congress. He knew that there would be consequences," says Siti Zuhro, political expert from the country's National Research and Innovation Agency or BRIN.

Kevin O'Rourke, author of Indonesia-focused research firm Reformasi, wrote in his newsletter on Friday that Ganjar's remarks underlined "an increased sense of urgency on his part".

"Ganjar's latest remark is part of a delicate tussle that he is conducting with Megawati. The comment shows that he is keen for a breakthrough to the current impasse, and he is prompting Megawati to budge from her inflexible stance, but he is also exercising caution and restraint, lest she fault him for a transgression," O'Rourke wrote.

According to Siti, the PDIP is now facing a dilemma on whether to nominate Megawati's daughter, Puan Maharani, or Ganjar, a more popular figure in the polls.

A survey by Jakarta-based pollster SMRC, taken in the week of Oct 3 to 9, shows Ganjar as the most preferred name among all the potential candidates, with 32.1 per cent of the 1,220 respondents going for the governor. Prabowo Subianto, the twice-defeated candidate, placed second with 27.5 per cent, while Anies Baswedan earned 26 per cent.

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"Megawati has prepared Puan to be her successor, as part of her regeneration plan within the PDIP. Puan has graduated from a number of 'training programmes' [imposed on her by her mother], including by concluding her roles as leader of PDIP fraction at the parliament, as a cabinet minister, and currently as a speaker of the House of Representatives," Siti said.

"In 2014, Megawati backed down from her intention to run as a presidential nominee to give way to Widodo, who had the backing of so many PDIP's members at that time. This time Megawati will not back down."

Indonesia has scheduled the elections – for president and both regional and national legislative bodies – for Feb 14, 2024 but registration for nominees will begin from Oct 2023.

Potential candidates have ramped up their political safaris now, including Baswedan who earlier this month accepted an endorsement from National Democratic party, part of Widodo's coalition. Prabowo had declared his intention to run in August.

While the general elections are still more than a year away, PDIP's move in delaying the naming of their presidential nominee will hurt Ganjar's prospects at the ballots, which may affect the country's investment climate, O'Rourke said in his newsletter published on Oct 14.

"Each passing month in which Ganjar lacks clear party backing marks a missed opportunity for him to campaign openly, elevate his profile and realise his potential. In the meantime, persistent uncertainty about Ganjar's prospects will depress sentiment among investors and organisations planning operations in Indonesia beyond 2024," he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.