The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, shocked by April 9 legislative election results, on Tuesday joined forces with Golkar, the country’s second biggest political party. That erects a major roadblock in the path of Prabowo Subianto’s bid to overtake Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo in the presidential sweepstakes.
Prior to Indonesia’s April 9 polls, the PDI-P leaders thought the popular Joko, known universally as Jokowi, might sleepwalk the PDI-P to victory in legislative races as a run-up to the July Presidential sweepstakes. But he didn’t. Political analysts say PDI-P ran an inept campaign, didn’t take full advantage of Jokowi's presence and didn’t recognize that the dynamics of a legislative race are vastly different than a presidential one.
In addition, the party is still divided by a lot of factions not used to having anyone but the longtime leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Jokowi is said to scares some of the insiders. Also, the tactics used against him and the organizational skills of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party indicate that when the polls are held on July 9 the distance to the finish line might be longer than most thought.
Aligning with Golkar, headed by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, changes that equation. The betting is that Jusuf Kalla, the Golkar vice president during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first term, will resume that role. Bakrie’s own presidential bid has been scuttled by his unpopularity and analysts are predicting he will lose his job as party chairman when the dust settles.
In fact the April results amounted to a wake-up call that tightened the PDIP’s organizational apparatus and caused it to look afield for allies, as it did by aligning itself with Golkar. The most recent poll conducted from 20-24 April by normally reliable Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting Center shows that with a margin of error of 2.2 percent, Jokowi retains the lead with 44 percent support in a five way race vs. 28 percent for Prabowo, the most potent opposition.
With three candidate pairs running, Jokowi’s support rises to 47 percent, with Prabowo also rising to 32 percent. With only two in a run-off, Jokowi leads with 51 percent versus Prabowo’s 35 percent. Much has also been made of cross-party political support for Jokowi and his ability to attract supporters from other parties – far higher than Prabowo’s.
Two opinion polls had measured the Jakarta governor’s personal support at over 50 percent for a presidential runoff and translated this to mean he would garner 30 to 35 percent support for the PDI-P in the April poll.
The difference owes itself to a negative if effective campaign put on by Prabowo that is unprecedented in Indonesian politics. Prabowo put on a widespread video campaign that branded the Jakarta governor as a puppet both of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of PDI-P, and shadowy foreign interests. The former son-in-law of the onetime strongman Suharto had cemented solid support for Gerindra via nationalistic campaigning that focused on the grassroots and a return back the “good old times” of the Suharto era.
For the PDI-P, Jokowi’s worth as a candidate wasn’t just about his strong popularity. What set him apart from the opposition was something really unique. Not only does he have a strong track record of reform in local government, he is also universally perceived as clean. In the extremely corrupt context of Indonesia politics, he was like a candidate who had dropped from the sky.
Prabowo’s first move was first to leak the details of an earlier agreement that Megawati would back Prabowo as a presidential candidate, evidence, he said, of his “betrayal” by Megawati and Jokowi, who should have finished his job as governor in Jakarta.
From there, Prabowo launched a carefully calibrated campaign against Jokowi via a “Puppet” narrative, warning voters against electing a “puppet” and then insinuated that the Jakarta governor was subservient to Megawati, the real head of the PDI-P. He also charged Jokowi might be a “puppet of foreign powers.”
By the eve of the legislative poll, the puppet narrative had saturated the popular media and Jokowi was now at the center of a concerted two-pronged attack consisting of legitimate and more mannered attacks waged directly by Prabowo and his party cohorts, as well as a largely anonymous social media campaign that was dirtier and far less truthful.
The campaign used supposedly independent bloggers to link Jokowi with dozens of variations of overtly racist and nationalistic conspiracy theories. In these messages, Jokowi was simply too good to be true – that Megawati was using him to sell out the country to Indonesian Chinese businessmen and the Americans. Others examined Jokowi’s supposed Chinese ancestry and his conversion from Christianity to Islam as proof he wasn’t who he appeared to be.
The social media attacks came to a crescendo in the final three days via mobile phones, and through social media like Twitter and Facebook, peaking in the two day cooling off period when political campaigning in the traditional media was legally banned.
When voting in the legislative elections began, the puppet campaign virtually controlled the election narrative, effectively turning a vote for Jokowi into one for Megawati and her “failed” party which is widely – and accurately – believed to be corrupt.
Analysts said such campaigning likely cost Jokowi up to a quarter of his potential support and meant the PDI-P couldn’t name him a presidential candidate without having to form a political alliance.
Meanwhile, Gerindra almost tripled its showing from the 2009 race from 4 percent to 11 percent. Golkar ended up the second most popular party at 14 percent (17 percent last time). Other splinter parties all had higher than expected showings from 6 to 10 percent. Parties that conventional wisdom said should have been punished for poor performances in the last term performed far better than expected because the expected voting base shrunk, increasing the relative influence of the party faithful.
Jokowi’s diminished popularity meant that he took fewer votes than expected from other political parties. This primarily seems to have aided Golkar, the Democrats, PAN, the PKS, as well as the PPP. If not an unmitigated disaster for Jokowi and PDI-P, this result was a serious initial setback, a wake-up call for what may yet happen in the presidential race.
Since the puppet attack, Prabowo’s fortunes changed significantly. The PDI-P has regrouped and the big guns and supporting media have come out against him, reminding voters of the human rights accusations levelled at him during his time at the head of the military during the Suharto era.
Meanwhile, Prabowo has been forced to cosy up to some unlikely bedfellows. These include the little-loved Muslim party PPP and other Muslim parties that were former SBY allies – the PKS and PAN, all of which could compromise Prabowo’s formerly anti-government stance and cost him middle class votes.
In terms of political campaigning Prabowo has also returned to type – his current internet-based political messaging , a combination of patriotic songs and political documentaries, tends to be overly bombastic linking military themes with civilian politics, several of which have been lampooned by foreign observers.
Jokowi’s campaign now looks strong and Prabowo’s seems spent, especially with the Golkar-PDI-P alliance. But appearances can be deceptive and counterattacks can come too early. What the polls have showed so far is that Prabowo’s campaign has had much better timing when it counts, and that he has been able to extract maximum political theatre out of events and control the entire election narrative at certain key points.