Jakarta governor Joko Widodo looks set to be front runner in presidential race

With one survey after another now telling almost the same story for the past six months, it is tempting to think Indonesia's next government could well be a two-party coalition with a comfortable parliamentary majority.

Indeed, since former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and the once-ruling Golkar party are now so far in front of the 11-party pack, why look elsewhere unless a token Muslim partner is considered important and advisable?

If front-running Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is PDI-P's choice as a presidential candidate, as is widely expected, analysts believe Ms Megawati would be wise to declare him as early as next January, rather than wait until after the April legislative elections.

That's because it could put a rocket under the PDI-P's poll numbers.

Now hovering at 21 per cent, PDI-P's support is ahead of that of Golkar at 19 per cent, the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) at 10 per cent to 11 per cent, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party, which has slumped to a single digit.

Some analysts believe the Widodo factor has become so potent, particularly among Indonesia's vast number of young voters, that it could propel PDI-P above the 30 per cent mark, giving it close to 200 seats in the 560-seat House of Representatives.

The PDI-P is still the only party to have achieved such success in the democratic era. It won 33.7 per cent of the vote in 1999, the year after former president Suharto's downfall, when Ms Megawati was a democratic icon and 22 parties secured parliamentary seats.

Unless something untoward happens in the horse trading that follows any legislative election, only Mr Widodo, Gerindra leader Prabowo Subianto and Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie look likely to contest the presidential race in July.

With the field realistically narrowed down to those three, one recent poll has Mr Widodo cruising on 49.4 per cent of the vote, trailed by former front runner Mr Prabowo (24.1 per cent) and Mr Bakrie (16.8 per cent).

Apart from pondering her own political future, insiders claim Ms Megawati's reluctance to show her hand can be ascribed to not wanting to paint a large target on Mr Widodo's back so early in the race.

But developments have moved far beyond that, with political rivals already taking cheap shots at the Governor's failure to wave a magic wand and find an overnight solution to Jakarta's traffic problems.

The evidence seems to suggest, however, that the more the old guard tries to highlight his humble origins and inexperience, the more the support solidifies around him - not just in the capital, but across the country. He can thank the power of social media for that.

Not everyone is convinced that Ms Megawati won't run again, but as the keeper of the legacy of her father, founding president Sukarno, she will be calling all the shots no matter what happens.

That will include the choice of a vice-presidential candidate, hopefully someone with the world view and economic policy prowess that Mr Widodo seems to lack, and the composition of a ruling coalition if the PDI-P emerges as the majority party.

Current polls suggest that Gerindra will have to court two of seven medium-sized parties, including possibly the Democrats, if it is to amass 25 per cent of the national vote or 20 per cent of the parliamentary seats - the threshold needed to get Mr Prabowo into the race.

Meanwhile, the retired general will have to figure out a strategy to regain lost ground against a man whose popularity is an almost ridiculous yardstick of how much the electorate yearns for someone new and clean.

When I asked him at a recent lunch whether he felt bitter over the turn of events, the former front runner allowed he was "a bit surprised" at the Widodo phenomenon, but said he was committed to a process that threw up "the best and the brightest".

Attacking the Jakarta Governor would be self-defeating. But Mr Prabowo is a strong, persuasive speaker with a good grasp of the country's core problems, which he lists as weak governance, natural resource depletion and an exploding population.

Mr Widodo, by comparison, is a blank page, apart from revealing a concern for social welfare, a penchant for economic nationalism and a desire to make a difference. But that's the thing: So far, it doesn't seem to matter what he stands for - just that he's different.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com


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