Megawati Says She's Still the Boss

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the venerable chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), threw a spanner into the campaign of her party’s nominee for the presidency, saying Jakarta Gov. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is “the party’s official,” mandated to be the candidate but can’t act beyond the boundaries set out by the party.

Over the past two months Jokowi’s rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, has run a vitriolic and apparently effective campaign charging that the Jakarta governor is only Megawatt’s puppet and the tool of shadowy foreign interests usually perceived to be the US government. The ads appear to have had some impact, with Jokowi’s support in several polls falling from a high of around 40 percent “electability” to around 35 percent, with Prabowo rising to about 20 percent. Still, Jokowi remains far in the lead.

But, Megawati told a political gathering aired live on television Friday: “I made you [Jokowi] a presidential candidate. But you should remember that you are the party’s official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.”

Tjahjo Kumolo, the party secretary general, was employed for damage control afterward, saying “party official” is a term regularly used to refer to all party members serving as public officials.

Otherwise, the country’s complex presidential race is starting to shake out, with coalitions required to be officially set by Tuesday. The PDI-P bid made a major step forward when Golkar Party Chairman Aburizal Bakrie, the party’s declared presidential nominee, seemingly abandoned the race and gave his backing to Jokowi’s bid.

Bakrie, a coal tycoon sullied by his company’s involvement in a mud flow disaster in East Java in 2006, has struggled for years to rise above single digits in the polls. On Monday, he seemed to have given up, announcing an alliance with PDI-P, which could save him the embarrassment of defeat and leave Golkar in a powerful ruling coalition.

While the PDI-P announced partnerships with two smaller parties on Wednesday, Golkar’s name was not yet there. Golkar says a formal decision will be made at an internal party meeting Saturday. Despite the long-running Indonesian political practice of exchanging support for various kinds of intra-party patronage, Jokowi has publicly refused to make any deals. Indeed, he has a reputation for not dispensing goodies to supporters – but to be elected president requires a far more complex network of allies and patrons than winning in Jakarta. The parties seeking to align with Jokowi are certain to be seeking some kind of political treasure in return

Bakrie, for instance, met with Megawati Thursday afternoon and it still appeared that a deal was in the offing. But in any case, a Golkar-PDI-P pairing, which has been rumored as one possibility among many, means the race for president almost inevitably would involve just two candidates – Jokowi of the PDI-P against Prabowo and his Gerindra Party.

Markets in Jakarta reacted favorably to the news of a possible Golkar-PDI-P deal, which would bolster Jokowi’s chances and spare the country a possible run-off election in September.

The two present a stark contrast. Jokowi, a small-town, two-term mayor, has risen to dizzying heights since his election as Jakarta governor in 2012. His practical political vision and reputation for honesty has resonated widely with voters, according to most polls.

Prabowo, a Suharto-era strongman with a checkered human rights record, is an aristocratic Javanese insider whose grandfather was an independence leader who groomed him from a young age to someday lead the nation. His appeal lies in a nationalist message and dire warnings that the nation needs salvation in the form of a strong leader.

One-time political allies, Prabowo and Jokowi are now bitter rivals. In 2009, Prabowo lost a bid for vice president on the PDI-P ticket under Megawati. He issued evidence of a deal in which Megawati promised to support his run for president in 2014, but said she has now betrayed him in favor of Jokowi. Prabowo supported Jokowi in the race for Jakarta governor in 2012 and he now says the governor has also betrayed him.

Many observers look for the attacks to get worse in a two-way race. “We may see a really nasty campaign,” said Philips Vermonte of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If there are only these two, all these primordial sentiments will come out in the form of religion and nationalism.”

The two campaigns are also in stark contrast. Prabowo runs a centralized and streamlined machine, with clear messaging emanating from one source, sometimes to the chagrin of aides who would like the general to avoid going overly negative.

PDI-P insiders say the party is still in disarray, with key campaign positions yet to be filled. Legions of Jokowi supporters, however, have taken up the mantle, responding to attacks on social media and allowing their man to stay above the fray so far.

Both sides should be well funded. Conglomerates and businesses have been heavily drawn to Jokowi, while Prabowo’s war chest comes from a sizeable business empire run by his brother.

If, as appears likely, Golkar supports PDI-P, the arithmetic turns heavily in favor of Jokowi. Together with other smaller parties, the coalition would control nearly 50 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives (DPR) to go with Golkar’s formidable organizational strength dating from its time as former President Suharto’s ruling party.

The deal could also hinge on who Jokowi chooses as a running mate. His presumptive choice, Jusuf Kalla, a Golkar politician who was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s vice president during his first term from 2004-2009, is a longstanding Bakrie rival and critic.

In order to put a candidate on the ballot, a party or coalition of parties must win 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote during legislative elections. PDI-P finished first, but failed to cross the threshold, thus preventing Jokowi from going it alone; Golkar finished second.

Prabowo in turn moved close to naming Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Hatta Rajasa as his running mate. Hatta, chairman of the small National Mandate Party and an in-law of Yudhoyono, resigned his cabinet seat Tuesday to take up the No. 2 slot under Gerindra. Yudhoyono gave Hatta his blessing, a sign that his Democratic Party may give up on trying to field a candidate in July and could instead back Prabowo.

It is a measure of how far Yudhoyono and his Democrats have fallen that the president, who was reelected in 2009 with 60 percent of the vote, is largely a non-factor in 2014. The steady flow of scandals battering the Democrats in the last two years has claimed a cabinet minister and the party’s chairman, among many others, and has come perilously close to the president’s youngest son, a party official who has been implicated by some of those accused in a massive bid-rigging mess involving the building of a sports complex.

It is widely believed that Yudhoyono has been seeking a measure of protection from possible corruption allegations for himself and his family by joining a coalition with a chance for the presidency. His party has no strong candidate of its own, and a strained alliance with Prabowo – a longstanding Yudhoyono rival and critic – may be the best offer on the table. It remains possible that the Democrats could team up with Golkar, but that coalition would likely not stand a chance against either Jokowi or Prabowo.

Another factor pushing Bakrie into Jokowi’s camp is a widespread defacto movement to stop the mercurial Prabowo from becoming president. Prabowo is seen by his enemies as the dangerously unstable and ruthlessly ambitious.

The former general was implicated – but never formally tried for any crimes  in various shadowy plots at the end of the Suharto period to foment widespread unrest and attempt to seize the government, charges he has denied. Quietly behind the scenes, a multi-party coalition of players has sought to keep Prabowo from the presidency, and many of those figures are inside Golkar or already aligned with Jokowi.

An earlier version of this story appeared in Edge Review, a regional digital magazine