Indonesia's Democratic Party Down, Jokowi Up

The massive scandals that wiped out the leadership of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party have come home to roost, with only 7.1 percent of respondents in the latest polls saying they would vote for the party in 2014 elections.

The survey showed Jokowi getting 28.6 percent of the vote, ahead of former Gen. Prabowo Subianto's s 15.6 percent. In a one-one race against Prabowo, Jokowi would get 46.6 percent and Prabowo just 22 percent, the Jakarta Post reported.

In August 2012, Prabowo was the leader in the CSIS survey, with 44 percent of the potential vote.

The survey also showed an inexorably declining trend in the Democratic Party's popularity. Similar CSIS polls in January and July 2012 found that 12.6 percent and 11.1 percent of respondents, respectively, were willing to vote for the Democrats. Other polls show a similar decline in the Democrats’ standing.

While party loyalty is neither deep nor lasting in Indonesia, where voters choose an individual for president not a party, this is still a phenomenal comedown from 2009, when the coalition headed by Yudhoyono won more than 60 percent of the vote. That vote was widely seen, of course, as a vote for the still-popular Yudhoyono, who has presided over a period of significant economic progress and political stability.

Yudhoyono began losing his luster when the Democratic Party was hit by a scandal over construction of an athlete’s village for the 2011 Southeast Asian Games and an even larger sports construction project in West Java. The two related scandals have claimed several party leaders, youthful figures who were supposed to be standard-bearers of the reform era, particularly party chairman Anas Urbaningrum and Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng, who were charged with corruption. The party treasurer has been jailed along with a former Miss Indonesia who was a rising political star.

The president’s youngest son resigned his legislative seat earlier this year after his name surfaced in news reports tying him to the mess. He has not been charged by anti-corruption investigators.

Yudhoyono is attempting to contain the damage by taking control of party strategy and assuming the chairmanship after the resignation of Anas. He has initiated a number of bold moves with an eye toward restoring the party's luster. Chief among them is a plan for an open party convention within the next several months designed to draw out potential – and clean ‑ candidates for the 2014 polls.

A number of hopefuls have emerged, among them Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mohamad Mahfud M.D. and State Owned Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan. All three are considered clean and professional and none has formal political ties. Gita is considered the closest to the president and has already indicated his intention to be "available" for the convention. Mahfud is the best known of the three.

"Don't underestimate SBY," said one well-placed Indonesian political operator. "He has excellent instincts and he is personally trying to save the party."

The president's efforts are likely to be helped by the doldrums of the Suharto-era Golkar Party. Still the largest Indonesian political party with the best grass roots machinery, Golkar is saddled with the candidacy of its unpopular chairman Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia’s richest men. CSIS finds him a distant third in the current poll.

The other declared candidate, Prabowo, is slipping in the face of his high negatives. He was the one-time head of the Indonesian Special Forces, which was tarred by numerous human rights abuse allegatons during the Suharto years.

Prabowo showed his organizational skills by backing Jokowi – former President Megawati Sukarnoputri's candidate ‑ for the governorship of Jakarta last year, which the former mayor of Solo won handily.

Prabowo, however, is hurt by the fact that large numbers of the elite and many retired generals consider him to be unpredictable, unstable and prone to violent mood swings. Indeed a de facto coalition has already quietly emerged with the sole goal of stopping Prabowo from reaching the top.

The man everyone is keying on currently is Jokowi. His election last year vaulted him from near anonymity to nationwide stardom. Clean, fresh, simple and charismatic are the words most often used to describe Jokowi, who is seen as the virtual antithesis of traditional political leaders.

"He has an appeal that makes him a local combination of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama," said one observer. “It’s an appeal that goes beyond experience or achievements. This may be his moment.”

His accomplishments in Jakarta are so far limited to a number of bold proposals but the city's problems are so vast and its governance so complex that voters don't seem to be expecting miracles. All major political parties and leaders have held talks with Jokowi, as he is universally known, with an eye toward drawing him into their sphere.

But he is a member of Megawati's PDI-P and if she decides not to run the nomination could easily be Jokowi’s.

While the election for president is by direct vote, in order to put a candidate on the ballot a party – or a coalition of parties – must win 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote in the legislative elections that are held about two months before the presidential polls. This makes for a very fluid situation since few parties – Golkar and PDI-P may be the exceptions – will cross the threshold and will have to form coalitions.

This is also why a weakened Democratic Party is worrisome for Yudhoyono – his political bargaining power for the future could be severely constrained if he cannot deliver a sizeable number of votes or a strong candidate to a potential coalition partner.

It is too early to tell how the eventual horse-trading will play out, but the political heat is rising and the “Jokowi factor” is the most important current variable. One political consultant in Jakarta offered this snapshot of the confusing picture just over a year away from the presidential sweepstakes:

"Jokowi is up. It's his if he wants it. Despite the polls, the Democrats are making a surprising comeback, but they need a coalition and they want Jokowi, which is not going to be easy. Prabowo is slipping. He peaked too soon. And Bakrie has about as much chance of being president as my dog."