Jokowi’s Party Fails to Overwhelm

The results of Indonesia’s legislative elections on Wednesday are a setback for those who hoped that Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo would be swept to the presidency off the back of a dominant performance by his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Instead, PDI-P emerged as No. 1 but not by an overwhelming margin and the country’s system of negotiated coalition government seems likely to continue. Having failed to reach the threshold needed for a go-it-alone run, PDI-P and Jokowi will have to deal with the reality of back-door deal-making with a coalition partner to get on the July 7 presidential ballot.

Some analysts thought that Jokowi might have an easy road to power if PDI-P ground its opponents into dust. That could have been a recipe for genuine change or at least legislative efficiency. Instead, Wednesday’s vote resulted in at least nine out of 12 parties getting enough votes to have a say in coalition building ahead of the July election and to be meaningful political actors. Among other things that means Indonesia’s practice of trading cabinet seats for electoral support – sometimes with disastrous results – is likely to continue.

Before the vote, polls seemed to indicate that PD I-P and its presidential candidate Jokowi, might win as many as 35 percent of the seats in the 560-member House of Representatives. The party led the horse race but not convincingly, with under 20 percent of the vote in unofficial results.

Even Indonesia’s Islamic parties, which most analysts thought would be abandoned by voters, fared reasonably well, polling a bit higher than in 2009.

President Susilo Bambang Yuhoyono’s Democratic Party also did not disappear into oblivion, which many inside the party had feared as a result of widespread scandals. The Democrats finished No. 4 with about 10 percent of the vote. A key Democratic strategist said the party is hopeful that it will be able to name a vice presidential candidate in a coalition, perhaps even on a Jokowi ticket.

“This is good news for us,” the official said.

Jokowi remains by far the leading presidential contender and he may yet win handily in July. In 2009, the Democrats had just over 20 percent of the House vote, yet Yudhoyono gained a landslide victory with 60 percent of the popular vote.

From now until mid-May, when coalition partners have to be announced, parties will dicker over coalitions. Favors will be exchanged and cabinet seats will be up for grabs. It is the kind of messy process that fuels top-level corruption and takes place away from public accountability.

A party, or a coalition of parties, needs 20 percent of the seats in the House or 25 percent of the popular vote to nominate a presidential candidate.

Jokowi has risen to prominence by being different from the rest – and indeed he seems to be. But the stakes are very high when presidential coalitions are forged. PDI-P will have to play the game by the playground rules that prevail when real power is negotiated.

Jokowi has said he would name cabinet ministers based on competency, but he may find it difficult beyond the economic ministries, where technocrats prevail. Yudhoyono failed to name a professional cabinet after his landslide reelection in 2009 and the result was disorder and scandal in several ministries.

Jokowi remains the front runner with various polls showing him with a popularity rating nearing 40 percent. His closest challenger, former General Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era strongman, has been about 20 points behind.

Prabowo’s Gerindra party finished No. 3 on Wednesday, with about 12 percent. It is likely just enough for Prabowo to cobble together a few smaller parties and get on the ballot.

The Golkar Party held on to its No. 2 position, with 14 percent. The former political vehicle of the late President Suharto seems certain to stick with tycoon and chairman Aburizal Bakrie as its candidate, even if his poll numbers are extremely low.

Many analysts were surprised also to see the relative strength of the top three Islamic parties, which each finished with between 6.5 and 9 percent of the vote. It turns out that political Islam is still alive in Indonesia, meaning the Islamists will likely have a strong say in a future cabinet on social and religious issues.

Now it remains to be seen who Jokowi will pick for vice president. Former No. 2 Jusuf Kalla is frequently mentioned, as is former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who is No. 2 currently at the World Bank.

But Jokowi won’t have the luxury of acting on his own. Everything will be seen through the prism of coalition politics. With nine of the 12 parties still relevant, the system is as complex as ever.

In July, the likely contenders are Jokowi, Prabowo and Bakrie with various partners. If nobody gets a majority, a runoff will be held in September. The race is still Jokowi’s to lose but the reality of political life in a vast and complex nation like Indonesia was on display Wednesday. The system will not be easy to change and corruption, which most polls say is the biggest issue with voters, starts with dealmaking at election time.