Indonesian President Joko Widodo poses with a Royal Enfield motorbike during his visit at Pelabuhan Ratu beach in Sukabumi, Indonesia,  April 8, 2018.  Photo: Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari via Reuters
Indonesian President Joko Widodo poses with a Royal Enfield motorbike during his visit at Pelabuhan Ratu beach in Sukabumi, Indonesia, April 8, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari via Reuters

With opposition leader Prabowo Subianto declaring his candidacy in a horseback appearance before the uniformed ranks of his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Indonesia’s 2019 presidential race is shaping up into a rerun of 2014’s hotly contested campaign.

But questions remain over why the party’s April 11 national convention was held behind closed doors, without the normal media coverage, and why the former special forces general suggested his candidacy still depends on who he can gather around him.

For many analysts President Joko Widodo is already halfway home, soaring in opinion polls and already guaranteed support from most of his ruling coalition, including the second-ranked Golkar Party under new leader Airlangga Hartarto, the current industry minister.

The only holdouts are the National Mandate Party (PAN), which ran with Prabowo in 2014 and then deserted him for a single Cabinet seat in mid-2016, and the National Awakening Party (PKB), whose support may rest on whether Widodo chooses party leader Muhaimin Iskander as his running mate.

FILE PHOTO: Prabowo Subianto waves as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Jakarta August 6, 2014.    REUTERS/Darren Whiteside
Prabowo Subianto waves as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Jakarta in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s fourth-ranked Democrat Party (PD) remains in the centrist position it adopted following the 2014 elections, with its 61 seats in the 560-seat Parliament effectively undermining Prabowo’s majority opposition coalition at the time.

Widodo’s political team has already told Yudhoyono that his son, defeated Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Agus Harimurti, is too young and inexperienced to be considered for the vice-presidency, which leaves the ex-president’s family to consider its options.

Gerindra’s sole partner in the opposition, the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), has yet to declare its support for Prabowo, but so long as matriarch Megawati Sukarnoputri remains head of Widodo’s ruling Indonesia Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) it has little other alternative.

With legislative and presidential elections being held on the same day for the first time ever next April, fielding a presidential candidate will depend on a party or coalition of parties securing 20% of parliament’s seats or 20% of the popular vote, based on the 2014 legislative results.

Gerindra and PKS together barely get across the line with a combined 113 seats, but fall short on the vote threshold with only 18.6%. PAN’s 49 seats and 7.5% of the vote would make it safe on both counts, probably at the price of Prabowo choosing party leader Zulkifli Hasan as his running mate.

All this explains the language in Prabowo’s videotaped acceptance speech, where he said he was ready to run if the party ordered him to. Then he added: “I said ‘if.’ There is one condition. Even if the party orders me, I need the support of friendly parties.”

Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures on arrival at a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto from Jakarta on July 5, 2014 Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad
Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures before a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto, July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

Massed ranks of cheering Gerindra followers in uniforms and red berets greeted Prabowo as he spurred his chestnut mount onto a tree-ringed field adjoining his hilltop mansion near Bogor in scenes similar to that at Jakarta’s national stadium five years ago.

But this time was more private. “We were prepared for that,” says one senior government official. “It wasn’t the same as four years ago when he [Prabowo] was full of energy. Now he seems more reluctant.”

In the months prior to the party’s national convention, there were persistent reports, supported by this reporter’s conversations with insiders, that Prabowo was of two minds whether to contest the election, mostly because he lacks funds.

Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, the president’s chief political adviser and a long retired special forces general himself, has met his once-bitter rival three times in the past few weeks to discuss his political plans.

That has given rise to widespread speculation that Prabowo and Widodo might join forces. Sources familiar with the conversation say at the first two meetings Panjaitan urged Prabowo to run, in the belief that it is better to compete against the rival you know than the one you don’t.

At the third meeting over a Japanese lunch on April 6, Panjaitan raised the possibility of a joint Widodo-Prabowo ticket, but reportedly lost his appetite after Prabowo said he would consider it if he was put in charge of the military and was given seven seats in any new Cabinet.

Under Indonesia’s current chain-of-command arrangement, the national police is directly under the president, given its role in internal security and related counterterrorism issues, while the armed forces reports to the defense minister.

It is not clear whether Prabowo wanted to be both vice president and defense minister himself, or whether defense would have part of Gerindra’s proposed share of portfolios.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017.About 100 local elections took place across Indonesia on February 15 but the race in the capital is the most hotly contested, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin
An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin

Insiders say Widodo continues to mull over a suitable running mate, with his first criteria being someone who will be fully accepted by the Muslim community, a key consideration given the rise of a conservative Islamic coalition in regional and perhaps national politics.

Widodo’s other two lesser preferences are for a candidate with macroeconomic credentials, like incumbent Vice President Jusuf Kalla, and those who could be expected to make a credible run for the presidency in 2024 to continue his policies.

By most accounts, Widodo is not giving any thought to choosing new Golkar leader Hartarto or members of other parties in his prospective ruling coalition due to the potential for internal bickering.

The president still has until the August 10 nomination deadline to make his choice, but in the meantime he already appears to be on the campaign trail while pushing hard to complete the infrastructure program that already defines his presidency.

In recent weeks, Widodo has made several forays into West Java, the country’s most populous province and the scene of his third heaviest defeat in 2014. He is clearly intent on reversing that trend in 2019.

More recently he has traveled Papua, marking his sixth visit to the remote area since becoming president. There, he has been pictured with young girls in native costumes that to some have underlined his fatherly, everyman image.

Unlike in 2014, when Megawati and the PDI-P tarried in announcing his candidacy, the national leader clearly wants a head start out of the blocks and a solid lead in opinion polls – no matter who his presidential opponent, or even opponents, turn out to be.

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