Jokowi Gets the Nod to Run for President of Indonesia

With Indonesia’s election season just getting underway, Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was named the standard bearer of his political party on Friday, instantly becoming the front runner for president in polls set for July.

“I have been given the blessing of PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri to be a presidential candidate,” Joko told the Indonesian news portal “Bismillah, I am ready.”

The decision by former President Megawati changes the complexion of Indonesian politics almost instantly, giving her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) what will likely be a huge bounce in popularity.

The first test will come with legislative polls on April 9. Campaigning for the country’s House of Representatives and thousands of local legislative seats is set to formally begin Sunday and will last through April 6. Informal campaigning has been going on for months.

It is a process the public looks forward to with anticipation, since the candidates are expected to spend as much as Rp2 trillion (US$175.7 million) on electioneering. It is money that goes straight into the economy in the form of printing, entertainment, services and an unknown amount, if past is prologue, in cash for votes. Despite that, as the 2009 elections proved, Indonesia’s political process is maturing. The polls were conducted in a reasonably orderly manner and were endorsed by local international organizations as largely free and fair.

It is looking like the July presidential election (a runoff would be held in September between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority) is Jokowi’s to lose. The latest surveys show Jokowi outpolling his nearest opponent, former general and businessman, Prabowo Subianto, by about 30 points, 40+ percent to about 11 percent for Prabowo. A year ago, Prabowo, who is dogged by human rights charges against him from the Suharto era, was leading the race in most polls.

Governor, Rock Star, Jokowi

Jokowi has become phenomenally popular nationwide as a kind of symbol of a new Indonesia for his efforts to clean up the sprawling city, make civil servants actually come to work, clear up festering problems and tackle traffic by finally beginning construction on an urban mass transport system that is decades overdue. He has ousted illegal vendors, cleared sidewalks in some areas, put tax collection online and come off as honest, approachable and not corrupt, a rarity in Indonesian politics.

Where he stands on national and international issues remains somewhat of a mystery in a country that increasingly is turning away from globalization toward economic nationalism, particularly in the campaign to take back control of the country’s considerable natural resources such as coal, gold, copper and oil.

Indonesia goes into the election season with cyclical headwinds easing and with consumer price inflation – rising prices usually being a major electoral irritant – declining somewhat, from 8.2 percent annually to a still-high 7.8 percent. Fourth-quarter gross domestic product was better than expected at 5.72 percent, up from 5.62 percent in the third quarter. The rupiah, which had fallen in value by about 15 percent, has turned around modestly, now at Rp11,380 to the US dollar.

Sukarno’s Ghost

Speculation on whether Megawati would step aside in favor of Jokowi has swirled for months. Earlier this week it seemed certain when Megawati, the chair of PDI-P, cut short a speech near Jakarta to go to pray with Jokowi at the grave of her father, founding President Sukarno, who died in 1970. Neither issued a statement after the journey, but it was the latest in a long series of signs that Megawati would yield to the inevitable and allow Jokowi to shine. She has lost three previous races for president and only succeeded to the office in 2001 wen she was vice presdent and the No. 1 was impeached.

"This is what everyone was waiting for, this is what many people clearly want," said a Jakarta-based consultant. “It seems that Mega went through her own process to accept that the leadership of her party will finally have to change. She has to be comfortable with the transition, I think."

The first step is to get Indonesia’s legislative races out of the way, which largely determine the tickets for president. Some 46 parties have registered to take part in the election, but only a handful have the clout to play on the national stage.

In addition to a long list of other qualifications, in order to field a presidential candidate a party or a coalition of parties must win more than 20 percent of the seats in the House, known as the DPR, or 25 percent of the popular vote in more than half of Indonesia’s provinces. At the moment, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrats hold 20.85 percent of the DPR; Golkar, headed by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, holds 14.45 percent; and PDI-P 14.3 percent. Eight other parties have less than 10 percent. Gerindra, whose standard-bearer is Prabowo, holds only 4.46 percent.

Most observers believe PDI-P, with Jokowi in the No. 1 slot, will win a commanding plurality inte legislative elections, perhaps as high as 30-35 percent.

After the April 9 polls serious horse-trading will begin as lesser parties try to work out deals t get on the ballot.

Democrats in Free-fall

Prabowo’s Gerindra Party is expected to rise substantially in numbers as the candidate has worked the hustings hard but it is unlikely to pass the threshold alone. The Democrats, hobbled with scandal, could face a debacle. Two of the party’s top leaders, former chairman Anas Urbaningrum and former Sports Minister Andi Malarangeng, have been nailed by the Corruption Eradication Commission in recent months and a number of other party figures are already in prison. Members of Yudhoyono’s own family have been rumored to be involved in various scandals.

With Indonesians increasingly fed up and disillusioned with corruption, Yudhoyono, who ended his first term in 2009 with a strong reputation as a reformer only to lose it to scandal, will have a hard time staying relevant. The party has an internal process under way involving a number of potential candidates vying to be named the presidential standard-bearer, but it seems unlikely the Democrats will be able to lead any coalition ticket. None of the Democratic Party contenders registers in the polls, meaning it will probably be a three-way race with Jokowi far in the front, Prabowo considerably to the rear, and Bakrie hardly registering despite Golkar’s formidable organizational structure and pots of money.

The smart money is on Jokowi.