Indonesian Politics: Last Minute Deals

With the conclusion of Indonesia’s opaque process of coalition-building ahead of the July 9 presidential election, the lines are drawn between Suharto-era retired General Prabowo Subianto, and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the local politician who rose to national prominence when he became governor of Jakarta in 2012 and promised a more open and honest approach to politics.

Tuesday was the last day for deal-making, and the biggest surprise came on Monday when Auburizal Bakrie, the chairman of Golkar, the second largest party in the country and a traditional power broker in the legislature, finally abandoned his presidential ambitions and forged a sudden deal with Prabowo’s Gerindra Party.

The move took the top leadership of Golkar by surprise, infuriating senior politicians and precipitating what will likely be a de-facto split in the party, with many officials wanting to back Joko. “I am not happy with this,” said a senior Golkar leader who is close to Bakrie. The man was waiting for a meeting with Bakrie when he learned of the deal from news reports.

What happened?

The Golkar leadership had given Bakrie a “mandate” on Sunday to cut a deal with one of the major parties to either run for president or grab the No. 2 spot on a ticket. That mandate was understood within Golkar to be directed at only two parties – either Joko’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) or President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, which was battered in April’s legislative elections after two years of constant scandals.

Golkar sources said Bakrie had informed the party leadership that no deal was possible with Gerindra after Prabowo chose to name Hatta Rajasa, a businessman and chairman of the small National Mandate Party (PAN), to be his running mate last week. “We understood there was no chance with Prabowo,” said a source. A formal party council told Bakrie to do what he could with the PDI-P and the Democrats.

Sources say eleventh hour talks between Bakrie and Yudhoyono, which would have seen Bakrie run for president and the Democrats take the No. 2 slot, were called to a halt by Yudhoyono with no explanation.

Final talks with PDI-P chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president, ended when the party gave veteran politician Jusuf Kalla, the vice president during Yudhoyono’s first term from 2004-2009, the nod to be Joko’s running mate.

The sources say Bakrie sought promises from Megawati for cabinet seats or other perks in exchange for Golkar’s support. In keeping with Joko’s pledge to not trade cabinet positions for coalition support, she offered nothing substantial to Bakrie and Golkar.

In addition, Kalla is a rival to Bakrie and a former chairman of Golkar who retains considerable support within the party.

“We should have stayed neutral,” said a senior Golkar source. According to the source, Prabowo promised to name Bakrie a “senior minister” in his cabinet and give Golkar seven additional portfolios should he win.

What of SBY?

The weakened Democrats have apparently decided to remain neutral for the July election, but that stance is not fooling very many people. It is widely assumed that Yudhoyono is quietly backing Prabowo, largely because running mate Hatta’s daughter is married to his youngest son. Prabowo and Yudhoyono were both army generals at the same time but they were also rivals not allies.

Bad blood between Megawati and Yudhoyono dates back to the time he left her cabinet in 2003 to challenge her for president in 2004. She has never forgiven him and rejected all overtures from the Democrats to join the PDI-P coalition.

The Democrats saw their share of seats in the House of Representative shrink from 128 currently – the largest of any party ‑ to 61 in the next House, which will be seated in October. For Yudhoyono to remain an important figure in Indonesian politics – and for him to be protected from possible fallout from pending corruption cases against many of his current and former officials – he needs political cover, or so the reasoning goes.

By rejecting Bakrie and pushing him toward Prabowo, the president may have given a major boost – at least psychologically – to a campaign that is far behind in the polls. Senior Democratic Party officials were unwilling – or unable – to say if Yudhoyono is officially backing Prabowo.

Direct elections

Most recent polls show Joko beating Prabowo handily in a two-man race, but there are still as many as 40 percent of voters polling as undecided. Prabowo is running a harshly negative campaign against his rival and the tone of the race is expected to become nastier as July approaches

The 2014 elections will be Indonesia’s third direct presidential election since 2004 and the dynamics are such that party coalitions have little to do with voter choices. To nominate a candidate a party or a coalition of parties need 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote in the legislative elections. This time around, no party met that threshold, with PDI-P finishing just short of 19 percent and Golkar No. 2 with over 14 percent.

With the Golkar Party sharply divided over Bakrie’s decision to sign up with Prabowo, it seems certain that sizable chunks of Golkar’s impressive national machinery will opt to work for Joko.

“Personally, if were to take sides,” said a senior Golkar politician, “I support Jokowi and Kalla. We are split.” The man said the pro-Joko faction in the party “will go down to the village level to support our choice.”

The man said Bakrie’s alliance with Prabowo is out of step with the idealism and fresh style associated with Joko. “In this election something more is at stake, the idealism of Jokowi. We should be part of that.”

Golkar, former president Suharto’s ruling party, has never been known for idealism but rather hard-ball politics. Some leaders, however, see Joko as a sign that the Indonesian electorate is weary of greased palms and broken promises.

Joko’s surge from out of nowhere has redrawn the political map, empowering an amorphous army of young people who use social media to promote Joko. As much as Prabowo tries to present himself as a bold nationalist, he is inextricably linked to a past that includes a failed marriage to Suharto’s daughter and a string of allegations of various abuses dating from the end of the Suharto era in 1998.

Bakrie is the ultimate inside man. He has used the machinery of government to assist his family’s business interests since he first became involved in politics in the early 90s, most analysts agree. He is widely believed to have pursued a political career in recent years as a way to shield his complex and financially troubled corporate empire from government regulators.

If he has overreached, he may find himself out in the cold. Golkar sources say there are moves already underway inside the party to remove Bakrie from the chairmanship as soon as possible.