Joko Widodo (R) takes his oath as Indonesia's President for his second five-year term

Joko Widodo (R) takes his oath as Indonesia's President for his second five-year term during an inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. (Photo: ADI WEDA / POOL / AFP)

Jokowi’s Dilemma: To Stay or To Go?

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Although President Jokowi has officially announced the date of the next Indonesian presidential election, there are important strategic and personal considerations that could tempt him to seek to remain in power.

On 10 April 2022, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo confirmed at a limited Cabinet meeting that the general election would take place on 14 February 2024. He instructed the Cabinet and the General Elections Commission (KPU) to prepare for and ensure the success of the massive event in which presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections would all take place in 2024.  

Jokowi’s confirmation of the election date should have put to rest all speculation that the elections would be postponed, or that he is planning to extend his term in office. But whether it effectively ends remains a big question mark. This is because the dilemma over whether he should seek to stay in office or leave gracefully remains unresolved.

For one, those in his close inner circle could very possibly be thinking differently and may still wish to keep the option alive. These elites around Jokowi have certainly been enjoying privileges they did not have before.

As things stand, although Jokowi has announced the date of the elections, the idea of pushing through a constitutional amendment that would legalise an extension of the presidential term to three or even more terms has not been fully quashed. This is the scenario that the pro-democracy movement fears the most.

More fundamentally, at a personal level, Jokowi will need to be assured that his core interests would be adequately addressed if he were to leave office. First, the President certainly would want to ensure that his legacies would endure. He has worked hard to bring to fruition what he had promised — reflected in his Nawacita programme (or ‘Nine Priorities’) in his first term and his ‘Five Visions’ in his second term. Of all of his legacies, the relocation of the Indonesian capital (IKN) from Jakarta to Nusantara in East Kalimantan has the highest risk of being neglected or even abandoned if he is no longer in office. All the current rush to prepare for the relocation and massive development of the IKN, including the target for Jokowi to start working from Nusantara in 2024, has only one goal — that is to ensure that the new capital will be sufficiently developed to a stage that it reaches the point of no return. If there is any technocratic justification for why Jokowi would want to extend his office term, this would be it.

Ultimately, Jokowi would not want to be remembered like Soeharto, who at the end was forced to leave office. Jokowi would want, instead, to preserve his role as a kingmaker or to become a Javanese wiseman …

Second, Jokowi might very well be concerned about the political future of his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the mayor of Solo, as well as that of his son-in-law Muhammad Bobby Afif Nasution, the mayor of Medan. Quite naturally, he would want to protect them as he is the first Indonesian president whose son and son-in-law are subnational leaders. If he were to leave office, there would not be much leverage he could exercise. He would have to leave their fates in the hands of political parties which would pick their candidates solely on their electability. Hence, Jokowi has legitimate reason to worry that things could go wrong for them in the future.

Third, Jokowi must have learnt that almost none of Indonesia’s former presidents have managed to ‘live in peace’ after leaving the palace. Many former presidents were scrutinised over the policies and decisions they had made when they were in power. Some have even faced legal investigation. Although Jokowi has personally done nothing legally wrong, some of his policies and political interventions could be seen as problematic and be legally questioned in the future, similar to what has happened with Soeharto’s BLBI (Central Bank Liquidity Assistance Fund), Abdurrahman Wahid’s Bulog-gate and Brunei-gate, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Hambalang cases, among others.

On the flipside, Jokowi would also have to consider the potential damage to his legacy if he were to extend his presidency. Ultimately, Jokowi would not want to be remembered like Soeharto, who at the end was forced to leave office. Jokowi would want, instead, to preserve his role as a kingmaker or to become a Javanese wiseman — lengser keprabon, madeg pandhita ratu, which literally means, “stepping down from power, becoming a wiseman.” Such a role for former presidents to still advise the government via a former president’s club was mooted by former President Yudhoyono who discussed the idea with Jokowi sometime in 2017.

But political reality is never as neat as its analyses. While Jokowi currently appears to have arrived at a stage where he himself is inclined not to seek an extension of his term, circumstances might change. The dilemma would be accentuated if, for any reason, his political supporters manage to get parliamentary support and push through the constitutional amendment in the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat or MPR) that would facilitate a term extension.

No one really knows what is in Jokowi’s heart. That is why he himself must firmly state he will resign in 2024. It is not enough to give assurances by saying that the proposed extension of power would “slap him in the face”, or to state his disinterest in staying in power, or to prohibit anyone raising the idea. Neither is saying he obeys the Constitution adequate, because everyone knows he controls the majority of votes in the Parliament and MPR.

He must prove he is sincere in not wanting to run for the presidency again.

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Yanuar Nugroho is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.