The lack of real political difference among the various contenders for the top political job in Indonesia has paved the way for the culture of political dynasties to strengthen. Will this culture win out? The votes will tell.
The last few weeks of manoeuvring by almost all the political parties in Indonesia has exposed in the starkest way the grip of “elektabilitas” politics on the country. This brand of politics is essentially a mode of political activity where the only calculation is that of how many votes a particular presidential candidate or team might attract. Issues relating to differences in ideology, programme, or policy do not arise at all. Over the two terms of President Widodo’s presidency, the nine parties in the House of Representatives have agreed unanimously to all major new laws.
In the earlier stages of this manoeuvring, the National Awakening Party (PKB) joined a coalition headed by presidential contender Prabowo Subianto. Commentators pointed out that the PKB had a base among the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) constituency, centred in East Java, a weak spot for Prabowo in his 2014 campaign. Then suddenly, the PKB switched to the Coalition for Change, which is supporting Anies Baswedan. The chairperson of PKB, Muhaimin Iskandar, became Baswedan’s running mate.
So, what were Muhaimin Iskandar’s stated differences with Prabowo’s party Gerindra or his policies? Why did PKB feel more in tune with the programmes of the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) or the National Democratic Party (Nasdem), both of which are backing Anies Baswedan? There was no public discussion of this. The parties do, however, have differences in cultural styles, which relate to their geo-cultural constituencies. PKS relates to the less syncretic Islamic outlook found outside central and east Java, such as Sunda, the Minangkabau areas, and other parts of Sumatra and parts of Sulawesi. PKB relates to the syncretic form of Islam prevalent in east and central Java, where PKB competes with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
Similarly, where would the Democrat Party (PD), founded by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, go? There were at first meetings between PD and PDI-P: both sides said they were open to discussions though the longstanding tension between Megawati Sukarnoputri and Yudhoyono still existed. The PD was for a time in Baswedan’s alliance. However, PD joined Prabowo’s coalition. Through the course of this process, everybody made clear they were open to everybody else. There were no principled differences dividing the parties.
These are just two examples of the policy-free elektabilitas political culture that has opened the way for significant moves by Widodo to establish a political dynasty.
Prabowo Subianto has selected Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to be his running mate. Gibran, like his father, was a member of the PDI-P, which nominated Ganjar Pranowo as its candidate. During the well-publicised to-ing and fro-ing before Prabowo’s decision, there was never any question that Gibran could end up with either Prabowo or Ganjar, since there were no political differences in the way.
In fact, Gibran’s position was strengthened by Prabowo and the PDI-P confirming that they would “lanjutkan” (continue) Widodo’s policies. This was affirmation that there were no substantial programmatic differences and enhanced the perception that Gibran’s elektabilitas as Widodo’s son would capture Widodo’s personal popularity (thus votes), bringing with it Widodo’s endorsement of Prabowo as the next president. In the days before Prabowo announced his decision and Gibran accepted, Prabowo made emphatic statements that he was “one with President Jokowi” and “will continue his policies”.
This has legitimised what amounts to political treachery of the first order.
A key aspect of the media commentary on this decision involved tabulations. Would the people who voted for Prabowo in 2019 as an anti-Widodo vote now vote for Prabowo given that he is “one with President Jokowi”? Will those who voted for Jokowi as an anti-Prabowo vote now ignore Widodo’s blessing for Prabowo and instead vote for Ganjar?
Are there questions about what these manoeuvres will mean for policy? There have not been any. As all three (that is, Prabowo, Widodo and Ganjar) are agreed, policies will continue as before.
However, the successful placement of Gibran as Prabowo Subianto’s running mate points to a possible significant change in the current hegemonic political culture. To get Gibran in that position, compensating for Widodo’s failed attempts to get an unconstitutional third term as president, required some manoeuvres very damaging to already degraded political norms. Widodo and Gibram had to engage in a high degree of manoeuvring and political spin with regard to their relationship with the party that first nominated them, PDI-P.
This has legitimised what amounts to political treachery of the first order. The Constitutional Court, whose Chief Justice is Anwar Usman, Widodo’s brother-in-law, decided a case about the eligibility of a citizen under the age of 40 to stand as president or vice-president. Those who brought this case to court aimed at having the age lowered so that Gibran could stand. Usman did not declare a conflict of interest or recuse himself. A majority of the judges agreed to lower the age floor but with an additional qualification that a person over 35 could run for either post if he had already held a high public office. There has been widespread criticism and satirical comment on the politicisation of the Court, and an investigation into the Court’s and Anwar Usman’s possible ethical violations.
Furthermore, the Widodo family has strengthened its position on the political chessboard with the selection of his younger son, Kaesang Pangarep, as chairperson of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) just days after he joined PSI. The PSI has avidly supported Widodo since 2014. Despite their having no seats in the House of Representatives (DPR), Widodo has appointed PSI members to Deputy Minister positions. As the new PSI chairperson, Kaesang will be in a good place to get at least such an appointment if Prabowo becomes president.
Much of the politically liberal sector that had supported Widodo in 2014 has now turned against him. They are reacting to Widodo’s dynastic manoeuvres and his deepening association with Prabowo, a figure accused of serious human rights violations in the last months of Suharto’s reign. This is most manifested by the liberals’ intellectual icon, Goenawan Muhammad, founder of TEMPO magazine. He declared full opposition to Widodo as having turned to dynastic politics and TEMPO launched its own counter-campaign: “Don’t Vote for a Kidnapper”.
However, elektabilitas calculations are prevailing. Gibran/Prabowo might calculate that they might lose the middle-class liberal vote but still be able to pull together a share with most, if not all, of the constituencies that previously voted for Prabowo alongside any pro-Widodo votes. Whether a culture of extreme opportunistic manoeuvring – in the cause of positioning the Widodo clan and establishing a political dynasty – is consolidated in Indonesia will depend on the level of votes Team Prabowo-Gibran/Widodo gets.
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).