Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures at a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto from Jakarta on July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad
Indonesian leader Joko Widodo has opted for less restrictions while trying to open the country and keep the economy ticking over. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

It is still early days but Indonesian President Joko Widodo is reportedly open to the idea of trying to persuade Vice President Jusuf Kalla to run with him again in Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election, an arrangement that would see the latter veteran politician step away part-way through his five-year term.

“At this point, Kalla would be the safest bet,” says one member of an informal presidential re-election team, underlining the difficulty Widodo will face in finding a suitable candidate that will help to secure the pivotal conservative Muslim vote.

Kalla, 75, would fit that bill. As an alumni of the Islamic Student Association (HMI) and chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council, he certainly has the necessary credentials. What it will come down to, however, will be his health and whether he is tempted by the half-term plan.

Widodo is said to be aware of the offer, and sources around Kalla confirm the idea has been floated, but they say at this point Kalla is tired and wants to rest. He already faces the prospect of running the government while Widodo devotes his energies to the campaign.

The president’s formal campaign team, which has yet to be assembled, will presumably work with him in making a final decision from either Kalla or a slate of other younger candidates before the registration deadline in August.

A worker pulls down a campaign poster of Indonesia's then presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his running mate Yusuf Kalla after a rally in Cirebon, Indonesia, June 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
A campaign poster of then presidential candidate Joko Widodo and running mate Jusuf Kalla on June 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Widodo still boasts an approval rating in the high 60s, with the Saiful Mujani Research Centre’s (SMRC) most recent survey showing that 38.9% of respondents would vote for him if an election was held today, compared with 10.5% for prospective rival Prabowo Subianto.

In a two-way race, according to the SMRC’s January 3 poll, Widodo wins by 64.1% to 27.1% for Prabowo. But the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) leader is an aggressive campaigner and was able to make up a lot of ground in the final months of the 2014 race won by Widodo.

Interestingly, with millennials making up 45% of registered voters, a recent Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) poll taken among the so-called ‘religious youth’ showed a much narrower gap with 38.4% for Widodo and 24.6% favoring Prabowo.

Widodo’s perceived need for someone with a strong Muslim background stems from fears that the same conservative coalition which brought down his ally, Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, may also be employed to influence the outcome of the national elections.

Insiders say Anies Baswaden, the educator who defeated Purnama in last April’s gubernatorial election, is still favored as Prabowo’s running mate, though a lot depends on him proving his mettle in his new job as Jakarta governor over the next few months.

Indonesia-Prabowo-SEA Games-2011-Wikimedia Commons
Ex-soldier and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Although familiarity may be a significant factor, Kalla still ranks higher than anyone in SMRC’s vice presidential poll, followed by Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former president and Democrat Party leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who would be an asset if the youth vote is deemed more important than the conservative Islamic one.

The son of a deeply devout South Sulawesi businessman, Kalla’s political career has been facilitated by a life-long interest in education and religious administration, culminating in his election as head of the mosque council in 2012.

By all accounts, Widodo and Kalla had a rocky beginning, mainly because the president-to-be felt he had the ageing politician thrust upon him in the interests of drawing the second-placed Golkar Party into his then-minority government.

With Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie allied with Prabowo’s opposition camp, it took time for a party that had always been in government to overcome serious internal divisions and finally make the move over to Widodo’s ruling coalition.

After serving as Yudhoyono’s vice president in 2004-2009, Kalla had no intention of merely being a bystander when he thought he had a constructive role to play under a president whose only experience in governance had been at the local level.

It was likewise difficult for the first 18 months with Widodo, but the pair now have come to an accommodation. The recent election of trusted Industry Ministry Airlangga Hartarto as party chairman brings with it a solid guarantee of Golkar support in next year’s presidential election.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla after a ceremony inaugurating them in a new parliament in Jakarta, on October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla after their inauguration in Jakarta, October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Although rumors always flow thick and fast in the early stages of the election season, speculation that Prabowo is reconsidering to enter the race has already cast a cloud of uncertainty over the 2019 contest.

With no other viable candidates in sight, that would raise the possibility of an uncontested election, a sobering prospect for a country which endured three decades under an authoritarian ruler and only now has a leader untainted by the Suharto era.

But few people believe Prabowo is going back on his last word on the subject in October when he told the party faithful: “If you all believe that becoming president can be a means for struggle, then I am ready to become a candidate.”

Deputy Parliament Speaker Fadli Zon, his closest confidante, seems convinced he is running, and only this month party deputy secretary-general Andre Rosiade intimated Prabowo may make the announcement of his candidacy in the coming weeks.

Former Indonesian education minister Anies Baswedan (C) holds the hand of Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto (R) as Baswedan running mate Sandiaga Uno (L) talks to reporters after voting in the Jakarta governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan (C) holds the hand of Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto (R) in Jakarta, April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

“He is a man on a mission, and I can’t see him stepping away from that,” says one long-time friend, pointing to the way Prabowo has seen the presidency as his destiny from his early teens and through his career in the army special forces when he was married to president Suharto’s daughter, Titiek.

Money, however, may be an issue, with billionaire Hari Tanoesoedibyo recently switching political sides and Prabowo’s businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, reportedly reluctant to pay the same heavy bill he did in funding his sibling’s losing campaign in 2014.

But Prabowo, 66, continues to build the party he, Hashim and Zon started from scratch in 2008, four years after the cashiered general’s return from Jordan where he had been in self-exile after losing out in a post-Suharto power struggle.

Gerindra won a credible 26 seats in the 560-seat Parliament in its first electoral outing in 2009, then five years later made the biggest gain of any of the 10 parties, capturing 73 seats that catapulted it into third place behind Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar.

The party picked up many of its 38 seats on the archipelagic nation’s main island of Java – 22 more than in 2009 — at the expense of the then-ruling Democrat Party, which lost a huge chunk of its support over a series of highly-publicized corruption cases.

Raising people’s awareness of electoral processes and supporting their participation strengthens democracy in Indonesia.  Photo by Josh Estey.  Contact to request a high resolution original.
An Indonesian voter casts their ballot. Photo Wikimedia Commons/Josh Estey

Gerindra may now well be the best-organized party after Golkar, with ambitions of using a good showing in June’s provincial, municipal and district elections as a launch pad for next year’s simultaneous legislative and presidential polls.

PDI-P’s electoral machinery, on the other hand, is in urgent need of an overhaul after failing to get Purnama across the line last year and almost dropping the ball in 2014 when the hard-charging Prabowo had Widodo under pressure.

A much pudgier figure than he was as a fit-looking special forces general, one thing Prabowo may have to do better this time is control his eating habits, according to colleagues. “He eats like a truck-driver,” says a friend, echoing the concerns of some of Prabowo’s aides.

At least that’s something the rail-thin, bike-riding Widodo doesn’t have to worry about, even though he does have a well-known weakness for the unhealthy joys of oxtail soup.