The recent brouhaha over a possible extension of President Joko Widodo’s term underscores a quandary in Indonesia’s politics: there is no low-risk candidate that political parties can back.
On 11 April 2022, student demonstrations broke out in several cities around Indonesia. Although the students presented a list of demands and criticisms on several fronts, the central protest was against attempts to extend President Joko Widodo’s second term of presidency beyond the constitutionally mandated two terms. These protests, gathering thousands of students, were not as politically broad as earlier demonstrations against the weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) nor those against the Job Creation Omnibus Law in 2020.
This time, the organising forces were limited to the Student Executive Bodies (BEM) that were elected at the faculty level in various universities. With a few exceptions, the BEMs are dominated by the student organisations Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam and, more significantly, KAMMI (United Action of Indonesian Muslim Students). KAMMI is close to the Justice and Welfare Party (PKS). The PKS, considered an Islamist party, is one of just two of the nine parties in Parliament that is not in the governing coalition.
The BEM was not the only sector opposed to changing the Constitution for either an extension to President Widodo’s term of office or allowing a third term. Almost all of civil society — the spectrum of non-government communities, social issue and rights-based organisations that have solidified over the last 20 years — is opposed to extending Widodo’s presidency. This civil society spectrum does not, however, have any significant leverage within the formal electoral system. This sector of society has also yet to produce stable ongoing national coalitions or national leadership figures, although the pressure for that to happen is surely increasing.
The initial wave of pressure to extend the presidency came from cabinet ministers such as Luhut Panjaitan (ex-Golkar), Airlangga Hartato (Golkar) and Muhaimin Iskandar (National Awakening Party – PKB), as well as other high-profile political figures. They seemed to be pushing for an emergency extension of the President’s term in office, justified on the grounds that Covid-19 has prevented the government from completing its programme. This option, which ran into significant public opposition, including the recent demonstrations, was taken off the table when the President reaffirmed, also on 11 April, that both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections would be held in 2024. It is worth noting, however, that Widodo has not made any absolute statement that if the Constitution were to be changed to allow a third term, he would not stand.
The option of another term for Widodo must be tempting. A strategy to change the Constitution, if supported by all seven parties, may present a smooth path within the formal system; that said, however, it may very well lead to more social unrest.
Most observers close to elite politics still think that Widodo wants to find a way to stand again, as a third term is the only way he can ensure the New National Capital (IKN) project can be taken forward to a stage where it can no longer be aborted (to date, no party has spoken out against the IKN plan). If it becomes clearer that Widodo will not stand again, he will be a lame-duck President on this particular issue.
For the political parties in Parliament, the situation is complicated. If all the parties in the current government seek to amend the Constitution to allow Widodo to stand again and they all support him in 2024, we could see a presidential election with only one candidate. The two parties outside the ruling coalition only have a combined 104 seats out of the 575 seats in Parliament, which is below the 20 per cent needed to nominate a candidate, even if they could agree on one. Some parties in the ruling coalition also have potential presidential candidates, such as Gerindra’s Prabowo as well as Puan Maharini and Ganjar Pranowo from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). These parties have also opposed Widodo staying on beyond 2024 (or at least, for now).
The option of another term for Widodo must be tempting. A strategy to change the Constitution, if supported by all seven parties, may present a smooth path within the formal system; that said, it may very well lead to more social unrest. The 11 April demonstrations were relatively narrow, but the issue in contention has broad support. Protests could easily broaden and unite under a more powerful issue: opposition to rolling back a reform considered a major gain of the Reformasi —Presidential term limits. This outlook is also sharply articulated by major national media players, such as the Tempo group, and reflected to some extent in others. Within Jakarta business circles, it is said that sentiment is moving against Widodo as he is seen as risking provoking social unrest.
However, if not Widodo, who can those seven parties support? Which candidate has the most “elektabilitas” (electability), including support from their own parties’ elites? The primary criteria for all nine parties should be a good chance of winning an election, and not any policy or ideological differences, of which there are none. The quandary for all players is that there is no obvious low risk candidate to back — no Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or Joko Widodo. The names being bandied about as candidates in the polls score no higher than a low 20 per cent, and some as low as 2 per cent. At least for the next several months, Indonesian mainstream politics will be enveloped in this quandary: gun for a single candidacy presidential election and risk social unrest, or risk the fate of one’s own party in a race where you are not sure who can stand, let alone win.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of “An Introduction to the Politics of the Indonesian Union Movement” (ISEAS 2019) and the editor of “Continuity and Change after Indonesia’s Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment” (ISEAS 2019). His newest book is “Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship”, (Penguin Random House, 2022).