Billboard with an endorsement of Anies Baswedan photographed on 9 November 2022. (Photo: Burhanuddin Muhtadi)

NasDem’s Endorsement of Anies Baswedan: Brilliant Gambit or Political Blunder?

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The race for Indonesia’s 2024 presidency might be narrowing in the wake of a bold move by a small party.

Indonesia’s National Democrat (NasDem) Party’s decision to endorse and declare Anies Baswedan as its presidential candidate in October 2022 raised questions about the party’s rationale. NasDem did so a month before it was previously planned; one explanation for the haste could be that NasDem wanted to capitalise on Anies’ popularity before he officially ended his term as Jakarta’s governor.

A different interpretation is that NasDem’s nomination of Anies for the 2024 presidential election (PE) was a strategic move to protect Anies from ‘criminalisation’. NasDem likely also wants to ride on Anies’ coat-tails to draw in his Islamic supporters’ strongholds in West Java, Banten, and Sumatra. Anies’ official nomination gave fresh momentum for supporters of the Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, who like Anies is among the frontrunners in the popularity polls. Ganjar is widely believed to be the most likely candidate to defeat Anies in a head-to-head race for the 2024 presidency.

Before NasDem’s move, Tempo published a report on “Firli’s Ploy to Catch Anies”. According to this report, Firli Bahuri, head of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), directed his subordinates to designate Anies as a potential suspect in alleged corrupt activity linked to electric car racing. Firli apparently wanted this to be done before any political party officially declared Anies as its preferred presidential candidate. Following this news, a new hashtag, #SaveAniesBaswedan, trended on Twitter in Indonesia. Andi Arief of the Democratic Party, for instance, has suggested that Anies might have been so targeted to prevent him from running in the 2024 PE.

Although the KPK’s accusations against Anies remain vague at this juncture and no formal charge has been made, with KPK even denying that Anies has been declared a suspect, many including NasDem members believe that the threat to deny an Anies presidential run is real. Although NasDem’s declaring of Anies as its presidential candidate will not halt the KPK’s investigation into alleged corruption in “Formula E”, the electric car racing activity, such an investigation could easily be politicised by Anies’ opponents. Conversely, if these are just rumours and if eventually the KPK lacks any solid evidence of Anies’ involvement in the alleged corruption, the voting public may sympathise with him, ironically increasing Anies’ electability.

By nominating Anies, NasDem has already negatively impacted its relationship with the Widodo administration. The public currently views Anies as a viable ‘opposition’ figure, in contrast to Widodo’s PDI-P background. By placing its bet on Anies, a non-party figure with significant electability, NasDem likely hopes that Anies’ supporters would come to see NasDem as a viable alternative to the other larger parties contesting in the general elections (GE) in 2024.

To this end, NasDem has launched a massive media campaign to promote Anies as the party’s presidential candidate. Media magnate Surya Paloh, chairman of NasDem, has leveraged on its main television channel, MetroTV, putting Anies on billboards and banners all over the major Indonesian cities, even though official PE nominations are not due for several more months.

NasDem’s announcement on Anies has now raised Ganjar’s prospects as a serious presidential contender.

More worryingly for NasDem, its nomination of Anies might have already affected the party’s electoral prospects. There are some reports of mass resignations by NasDem members in non-Muslim-majority regions. These members might be showing their displeasure at the party elite’s decision, given that Anies’ electoral success in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election was heavily influenced by religion-based identity politics, including his seemingly close relationship with Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab and other Islamist actors.

East Nusa Tenggara, North Sulawesi, Maluku, and Papua had provided NasDem with considerable support in the 2019 elections. However, these provinces have large non-Muslim constituencies. Assuming that NasDem’s support for GE 2024 could be weakened in those areas because of its backing of Anies as its PE candidate an alternative source of future votes could come from the religiously conservative provinces with large populations such as West Java, Banten, and Sumatra.

NasDem’s announcement on Anies has now raised Ganjar’s prospects as a serious presidential contender. Prior to NasDem’s declaration, there seemed to be an unofficial consensus among various party elites to nominate their own leaders as their respective PE candidates. Ganjar is now the frontrunner in credible surveys by polling agencies such as Indikator Politik, Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), SMRC, and CSIS, with Prabowo Subianto and Anies coming in second and third, respectively. Ganjar’s statement on 18 October that he was willing to run for president received a milder response from his own party, the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), compared to its earlier frostiness. It is possible that the party’s leadership might pragmatically become more receptive, not just given NasDem’s move but also as heir apparent Puan Maharani’s chances keep fading. While the odds might still be long, Ganjar seems likelier to be PDI-P’s potential PE candidate to challenge Anies.

Meanwhile, Prabowo’s electability has plummeted in the wake of NasDem’s move. Many of Prabowo’s supporters seem to have shifted their allegiance to Anies. Even several “United Indonesia” coalition parties, including the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Awakening Party (PAN), have expressed support for Ganjar as their preferred presidential candidate. NasDem’s early move to endorse Anies might just be the gambit to force the other parties to show their hand.

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Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.