Indonesia votes for a muddle

A. Lin Neumann
The word now is negotiation. Parties will be scrambling to form effective coalitions to get on the ballot in July.


Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is not headed for a presidential coronation after all, at least not one led by his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Following Wednesday’s legislative elections, the entire picture got decidedly muddled.  

The result will be complex jockeying to form acceptable coalitions for the July 7 presidential election. Some analysts had predicted that a period of dramatic reform might emerge from a Jokowi presidency if the opposition PDI-P was dominant in the legislature. Instead, the competing and conflicting interests that mark – and sometimes sully – the Indonesian political system are likely to remain in place. 

Pre-election polling seemed to conclude that PDI-P, having given the presidential nod to the popular Jokowi, might swamp the field and come away with as many as 35% of the seats in the 560-member House of Representatives. That didn’t happen by a long shot, and while the party did come out at No. 1, with just under 20% of the vote in “quick-count” results, the country’s other leading parties are not that far behind. 

“There was a Jokowi effect, but it was not as great as PDI-P hoped, obviously,” said Dino Patti Djalal, the former Indonesian Ambassador to the US who is currently seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. In 2009, PDI-P had about 14% of the vote.

Dino said he believes the results give hope to the Democrats, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s party. Battered by numerous public corruption scandals, the party finished No. 4 at about 10%, half as good as 2009, but far better than a feared slip below 5% based on pre-election surveys. “This gives the party some momentum” in joining a coalition, Dino said of the result. 

“This is a disappointment for PDI-P, certainly,” said Paul Rowland, an independent election analyst based in Jakarta. “But in legislative elections, you are voting for a local candidate and a party, not for a presidential candidate. Jokowi was not on the ballot.”

It is worth noting that in 2009, the Democrats finished with just over 20% of the House vote, yet Yudhoyono swept to victory with 60% of the popular vote three months later.

The word now is negotiation. Parties will be scrambling to form effective coalitions to get on the ballot in July. A party, or a coalition of parties, needs to have 20% of the seats in the House or 25% of the popular vote to nominate a presidential candidate. Coalitions are due to be announced in the second week of May, after official House results are in. 

While the country has a presidential – not a parliamentary – system, coalitions traditionally result in the allocation of cabinet posts based on political interests rather than competency or policy alignments. That fact has played a major role in corruption, with some parties using ministries as a conduit for illicit fund raising.

The Democrats have seen one cabinet minister put on trial for corruption and rumors that others may yet be named for misappropriation of funds. Jokowi has said he would name cabinet ministers based on competency, something Yudhoyono failed to do after his landslide reelection in 2009, but that might be tough if political deals are required to get him elected.

Partner to the dance

After Wednesday, Jokowi remains the front-runner based on various poll numbers showing him with a popularity rating nearing 40%, but PDI-P will need to bring a partner to the dance. Traditional powerhouse Golkar finished No. 2, with above 14%, about as expected, and should easily be able to get its ticket, led by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, on the ballot. Aburizal’s personal poll numbers are dismal, but he has shown no signs of pulling out of the race. 

The Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, headed by “chief patron” and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, got just enough out of the Wednesday result to stay relevant, finishing No. 3 at just under 12%. The controversial Suharto-era general has been slipping in the polls against Jokowi, but is still No. 2 and will likely find enough partners to get on the July ballot. 

Also doing better than expected, and further crowding the middle ground of the political system, were 3 Islamic parties, who each finished with between 6.5% and 9% of the vote. While the chance of the country slipping into the hands of an Islamist majority remains remote, political Islam’s demise was prematurely announced.

In all, 9 of the 12 contending parties came away with enough votes to have a strong voice in any coalition talks. That means a lot of favors will be demanded and dispensed before Indonesia gets a new leader. 

The biggest question after Wednesday is which party will bring a vice presidential candidate to the Jokowi ticket. The choice of a No. 2 will say a lot about whether the governor is a real reformer or another captive of a murky system, like Yudhoyono. PDI-P could align with anyone from the Democrats to the new Partai Nasional Demokrat, or NasDem, led by media mogul Surya Paloh, which got about 6.5%. 

Independent figures also have been floated as vice presidential names under Jokowi and he will doubtless need a strong figure on the ticket, especially given his lack of national and international political experience. Smaller parties will also be drawn into the Jokowi orbit, because they will want a taste of the spoils, but the possible combinations are almost limitless. 

By July, the likelihood is that there will be 3 candidates on the presidential ballot: Jokowi, Aburizal and Prabowo, all in coalitions that will be hammered out far from public scrutiny. Islamic parties will have a significant say in forming coalitions, which means that socially conservative clerics will continue to have a voice in policy debates over moral and religious issues. 

If no candidate gets a majority in July, a runoff will be held in September. 

In short, it is a recipe for compromise, not change. Polling numbers have said repeatedly that the Indonesian public is sick of the kind of corruption that closed-door favor-trading breeds. That sentiment has yet to translate into a consistent direction at the ballot box and the foreseeable future looks to be more of the same. –

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