Indonesian President Joko Widodo (2nd L), Vice President Maruf Amin (2nd R), former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo (R) attend the celebration 'Sukarno's Month', founder of the nation, at the Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Gyl BATARA / AFP)

Jokowi’s Manoeuvres in Defiance of Megawati Aimed at Consolidating Future Position


How does an outgoing president secure his political future without the usual party mechanism?

From the moment the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) nominated Joko Widodo as its presidential candidate back in 2013 (for the 2014 presidential election, PE), and again in 2018 for the 2019 PE, Chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri has emphasised that Widodo would act as a petugas partai (party task bearer). However, at this juncture in 2023, it is clearer that two-term President Widodo is not, and probably never was, a “PDI-P task bearer”.

From early on, there were speculations that Widodo might want a party of his own, based on organisations of relawan (“volunteers”). While this has not happened, it remains clear that Widodo sees himself as a separate political actor and, as his presidency comes to an end, is trying to establish a basis for continuing his influence. This is reinforced by his attempt to establish a political dynasty, highlighted this past week by the front cover and top story of TEMPO magazine. During Widodo’s presidency, both his older son (Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Surakarta’s mayor) and his son-in-law (Medan Mayor Bobby Nasution) have won mayoral positions.

Widodo needs a political organisation of his own. Now he appears to be in a psy-war with Megawati Sukarnoputri over who will be the most influential figure in PDI-P into the future. These tensions escalated after Widodo was seemingly trapped into appearing at the press conference on 21 April 2023 where Megawati announced PDI-P’s nomination of Ganjar Pranowo. At this event, Megawati and Ganjar reiterated that even presidents remained “petugas partai”.

It soon became clear that Widodo was not on the same wavelength as Megawati. Despite being seated at the press conference nominating Ganjar, Widodo quickly made it clear that he was not automatically going to support Ganjar. At a well-funded mass gathering of so-called volunteers, Widodo proclaimed it was too soon for his supporters to declare support for a candidate. He would “whisper into the ears of all the parties”, he declared, about who would be good. At the same time, his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka indicated support for Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto; Gibran’s volunteer organisation also declared its support for Prabowo.

Unable to build an organisation of his own, Widodo clearly wants greater influence within the PDI-P, whether formally or by triumphing as kingmaker.

In June, ANTARA was forced to declare as a hoax a purported news item declaring that Widodo would be Prabowo’s vice-presidential candidate. Newspapers also reported Prabowo as saying that being a Minister under Widodo was “all smiles”.

These manoeuvres by Widodo gave rise to the “cawecawe” (Javanese for meddling) controversy. Civil society, commentators and critics, and even former president Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono have criticised Widodo for using his position as president to interfere in the process of presidential nominations. These critics assert that he should be above these processes as a head of state.

On 17 July, Widodo carried out a minor Cabinet reshuffle. The most important new appointment was that of Budi Arie Setiadi as the new Minister for Communication and Information Technology. Budi Arie, formerly deputy minister for transmigration, villages, and disadvantaged regions, is chairman of the pro-Widodo relawan organisation, Projo. He is also somebody who has shown signs of supporting Prabowo. This appointment of a Widodo loyalist will be seen by some in the PDI-P camp as another assertion of Widodo’s independence from the party.

Even so, Widodo may still end up supporting Ganjar Pranowo. It is not declared openly but clear that a bargaining process is taking place. Widodo is sending a message to PDI-P that Megawati Sukarnoputri is no longer automatically the kingmaker. Connected to this is Widodo’s need for a political organisation of his own to further his dynasty’s political interests. He needs some guarantee that his son and son-in-law’s political careers will be supported by the PDI-P.

Unable to build an organisation of his own, Widodo clearly wants greater influence within the PDI-P, whether formally or by triumphing as kingmaker. Given the uniqueness of this situation – an incumbent president without his own party negotiating with a former president and chair of a long-established party – it is unclear what exactly Widodo can ask for. It is likely that some guarantee is the price he hopes to exert for fully supporting Ganjar Pranowo. The threat of a Prabowo-Widodo challenge to the PDI-P ticket may be sufficient to concern Megawati with regard to the political divisions and tensions it might create. Will she seek to reach a compromise that can reduce the possibility of party divisiveness, or call Widodo’s bluff?

There is an additional contradiction brewing. Widodo’s ideological orientation – essentially that of deregulated free-flight capitalist economics – is very different from the traditional PDI-P ideological orientation, especially that which motivates an important section of its membership, if not its MPs, who have consistently voted for everything put forward by the government. In terms of the materials used for political education for party members – especially for its youth wing and also in some internal party analyses, there is also a Marhaenist stream within the PDI-P that supports more regulated welfare-state capitalism minus the original references to socialism. This stream is already subordinated to the pro-Widodo MP faction in parliament. It would be even under more pressure if Widodo increased his influence in the PDI-P – even if informally – and used it to further his dynastic ambitions.

Widodo’s alternative of allying with Prabowo provides less of a guarantee of an ongoing political mechanism into the future. Thus, if Megawati does refuse whatever deal Widodo may want and calls his bluff, Widodo’s position vis-à-vis Prabowo may also weaken. Observers comment that Widodo wants to cement his position by being seen as kingmaker. His weakness is that he has no formal organisation that he can rely upon after he is no longer president.


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).