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Notes on presidential politics in the upcoming Indonesian elections

By Max Lane - January 12, 2009

The Indonesians newspapers and media are quite naturally increasingly focusing on reporting and analyzing the various aspects of the campaigning for the 2009 parliamentary and presidential elections. To date the overwhelming weight of reports, reflecting the nature of the political activity that is most public, is focused on the question of who will be the various parties presidential candidate, and, no less important in terms of governmental outcome, who might be the various presidential candidate’s vice-presidential partner.


Just in the last few days, Hanura's General Wiranto has been nominated formally as his party’s candidate and Golkar chairperson Jusuf Kalla has made the enigmatic but sufficiently provocative statement that he wants to be a “state leader”. A LP3ES poll has concluded that the combination of Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) with Golkar or Partai Republikan Sultang Hamnegkubuwono the X1th (Sultan of Yogyakarta) might just beat the current combination of President Yudhoyono (Democrat Party) and Jusuf Kalla. Other poll’s suggest the Gerindra Party’s TV advertising campaigning is shifting General Prabowo up the polling score in his bed for the Presidential candidate. Rizal Ramli, currently nominated as a presidential candidate by the Employer and Employee Party as well as the Star Reformation Party (PBR) is hinting that his being charged with fomenting rioting back in May, 2008 is meant to destabilize his presidential ambitions.

Most commentators, and the various political actors and observers I regularly speak to, suggest that the most likely outcome is that the combination of Yudhoyono-Jusuf Kalla (the current ruling coalition core grouping of Golkar plus Democrat Party) will end up facing off against, PDI-P’s Megawati and whomever she chooses as Vice-President. However, everybody is also very aware that things might “meleset” – get thrown off the rails a bit.

Indeed, the perception that the political balance is fragile is exactly what has convinced some politicians putting themselves forward as candidates that they have a chance despite the fact that they have had no organized base or are just trying to build such a base now. Megawati and Jusuf Kalla - if Golkar should nominate him - do have a solid organized base. The PDI-P scored 18 percent in the last elections and Golkar 22 percent. President Yudhoyono has had an organized base, the Democrat Party, since before 2004, although it only scored 7 percent in 2004. Nobody is quite sure how strong it is on the ground today.

The other candidates - Wiranto and Prabowo or the Sultan or Rizal Ramli - have no real organized base, or have only recently started building one. Wiranto started up Hanuara after the 2004 elections, and likewise, although slightly later, Prabowo started up Gerindra. Prabowo, however, had somehow got himself chosen as the chairperson of the Himpunan Kerukukan Tani Indonesia (Indonesian Farmers Association - HKTI). The HKTI was the official farmers union under the Suharto dictatorship. Again we will only know how real the voter mobilisational power of these formations are in April.

The Sultan of Yogyakarta has been nominated as a presidential candidate by the new, small Republikan party, which also has ties to some Christian circles. However, the Sultan like Rizal Ramli (and a few other candidates out there) are hoping to be “dipinang” (to receive proposals of ‘marriage’) from other more significant parties. The Sultan has a support group called the Rainbow Alliance, whose coordinator is the commentator intellectual, Sukardi Rinakit, and which as the supporter of some artistic world personalities, such as film director Garin Nugroho and musician Franky S. Ramli has also initiated the Komite Bangkit Indonesia, which he hoped would promote his profile. He seems also to have a major involvement in the Dewan Integritas Bangsa. These kinds of organizations work to give their candidates media profile and help to network with the registered political parties.

Networking with the registered political parties is crucial as the new Presidential Elections Law requires formal presidential nominations to be supported by a party or coalition of parties that have at least 20 percent of the seats in the parliament.

One social democratic intellectual, Fajroel Rachman, has been fighting to overturn this law through the courts on constitutional grounds, so that a non-party individual can stand for the Presidency, but this has so far not yielded any significant results.

Fragile balance

Why do these candidates with no or only very new and untested organized bases of support think they have a chance given the apparent solidity of the Yudhoyono-Kalla and Megawati camps? There are a number of scenarios which could upset the balance.

If Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party’s vote drops, perhaps this may result in Yudhoyono not standing. As Golkar has no credible figure - (Kalla’s image is too close to being semi-buffoon) - Golkar will need to choose a candidate from some small party, just as they had to do in 2004 in adopting Yudhoyono.

If PDI-P’s vote slips, the same dynamic will apply. PDI-P has no figure even remotely close to having even Megawati’s low popularity as a Presidential figure. Such a scenario would advantage a candidate from some small party. Given that both “dominant” parties, Golkar and PDI-P, actually had support quite small bases of around 20 percent as of 2004, is it possible that one of the new parties may get close to their votes, thus increasing the new parties bargaining power, including on the question of a Presidential candidate from some small party.

Further as you only need 20 percent of the seats to nominate a president. If the PDI-P and Golkar-Democrats win about the same votes as in 2004, 18 percent and 30 percent of the vote respectively, there would be parties with seats enough to nominate at least two other presidential candidates, if the other parties can form coalitions to nominate other candidates from one of the smaller parties. Then it would come down to a contest in the first round of the presidential elections as to who could get the most votes. If there were four candidates you may only need to get 26 percent of the vote to win and even less (depending on how a vote candidate number one got) to be the other candidate to fight it out in the second round run-off.

There may be the basis of a coalition between the various Islamic parties, especially those that share an ideological continuity with the old Masyumi party. If Hanura and Gerindra get in and Wiranto and Prabowo can bury old rivalries, they might be able to gather a few other parties to back them, including one or more of the Islamic parties. (Although the 2.5 percent parliamentary threshold may eliminate some parties with seats now reducing the range of parties available for alliances.)

So up until and including the first round of the presidential elections, a party or coalition of parties really only needs to win, first 20 percent (to be nominated) and then 20-26 percent (approx) to get into the second round run-off. In other words, all the parties know they do not need to have very much popular support to get into the game in a serious way. If we take current estimates by many commentators of a high Golput vote (i.e. those not registering to vote or not voting even if registered) of 40 percent, then all these contenders are really only after 26 percent of 60 percent of the total voting population, i.e. 15 percent of total eligible voters. (Indobarometer polling announced results that 18 percent of their voter sample were not registered and 14.5 percent didn’t know if they were registered, or 32.5 percent. This is a starting base even before one counts registered voters who decide not to vote. These figures, if they hold, will mean higher numbers of unregistered voters than in 2004. Political scientist, Arie Sujito, from Gajah Mada University says he things the Golput figures will be 35-40 percent based on trends in provincial and regency elections.)

This is a very weird situation. All the candidates, even those with no or very new organized support bases, think they have a chance precisely because they know they only need 15 percent support from eligible votes, or 20-26 percent of those who vote, and precisely because they also know that none of them are particularly popular.

To date, maneuvering over candidates has overshadowed by 1000 percent (at least) any discussion of solutions to the country’s economic and social problems. Perhaps we will see more of that in the coming weeks. Another question for the coming weeks: will the Golput be a purely passive rejection of the parties? Will there be more extra-parliamentary political activity? More on these questions in future blog entries.

For more information and analysis on Indonesia visit Max Lane's blog at http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/maxlaneintlasia/

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