Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

They may be in the same camp, but former president and Democrat Party chairman Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won’t be offering financial or other help to opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and running mate Sandiaga Uno in their bid to unseat President Joko Widodo in next April’s election.

With Prabowo lagging in the polls, his Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) and the other opposition parties, Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and National Mandate (PAN), have shown little cohesion so far either, confronting a ruling coalition whose strength lies in the incumbency.

“It’s early days, but I don’t think they have enough financing,” says one Democrat Party source. “Sandi (Sandiaga Uno) and Prabowo promised the other parties financial support, but it hasn’t happened yet. They are not calling meetings because they’re afraid the parties will ask for money.”

Prabowo claims his campaign is self-funding, but Uno acknowledged in a recent meeting with foreign journalists that the money flow has been slow so far – an overall trend that appears to make this a very different election from five years ago.

The opposition candidate has only recently begun to hit the campaign trail, unlike the personable Uno who claims to have chalked up 700 “visits” trying to build himself a national profile that has always been Jakarta-centric. “Most people haven’t a clue who I am,” he confesses.

Indonesia-Sandiaga Uno-Deputy Governor-Facebook
Vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno. Photo: Facebook

The latest Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI) poll has Widodo ahead by 57.2% to 30%, a narrower margin than the previous Saiful Mujani Consulting survey, but with huge leads in East and Central Java and even a slight edge in the hotly contested battleground of West Java, the country’s biggest province.

Interestingly, that poll and the party’s own internal surveys also show that 53% of Democrat Party supporters intend to vote for Widodo and running mate Ma’ruf Amin, an aging conservative cleric who offers little to the campaign except for his Muslim credentials and some expertise in Islamic banking.

After Widodo rejected Yudhoyono’s elder son, Agus Harimurti, 40, as his vice presidential running mate earlier this year, Yudhoyono tried to get him on the Prabowo ticket instead. That failed, too, even though Uno, the 49-year-old deputy Jakarta governor, turned out to be the retired general’s fifth choice.

Unable to further his son’s ambitions and with the nomination deadline looming, Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party were left with little choice than to stay in the opposition coalition. Current legislation dictates that a party which doesn’t endorse a presidential candidate for 2019 can’t endorse a candidate for the next election in 2024.

Graduating a year apart from Indonesia’s military academy, Yudhoyono and Prabowo are as different as chalk and cheese, the former a correct, sometimes arrogant Javanese who studiously avoids confrontation and the latter a brash, tough-talking elitist with a hair-trigger temper to match.

The already strained relationship worsened recently after Gerindra secretary general Ahmad Muzani accused Yudhoyono of failing to campaign for Prabowo. It has always been clear, however, that without a quid pro quo the Democrat Party would only focus on the legislative elections, to be held on the same day.

Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono deliver a speech during campaign for Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, candidate in the running to lead the Indonesian capital Jakarta, in Bogor, Indonesia, February 8, 2017, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken February 8, 2017. Antara Foto/Yulius Satria Wijaya/via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTSYNEV
Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivers a speech during a campaign event for his son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono,  Jakarta, February 8, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Yulius Satria Wijaya

“It’s Democrats first. We don’t have any coattails, so we have to create our own coattails,” says the Democrat source explaining the fourth-ranked party’s single-minded effort to at least duplicate its showing in 2014 when it won 10.1% of the national vote.

After all, the well-heeled Yudhoyonos still have considerable drawing power and in the youthful Harimurti they will have a ready-made and well-seasoned candidate for the 2024 election, when Indonesia’s millennials are expected to finally take the political reins from the older generation.

Although he claims to be looking no further than 2019, Uno is likely to be eying the presidency as well, along with ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s daughter, Puan Maharani, who by then will have taken over from her mother as head of Widodo’s Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P).

Forty-four of the Democrat Party’s current 61 seats were won in Sumatra and Java in 2014, but overall it was a big fall from 2009 when Yudhoyono’s incumbency allowed it to capture a poll-topping 148 seats – 93 more than in the first election it contested in 2004.

The party’s internal polling currently shows PDI-P ahead on 27% — about 8% higher than its showing in the 2014 election – followed by Gerindra (20%), Golkar (10%), the Democrat Party and the National Awakening Party, each on 8%, and media tycoon Surya Paloh’s well-funded National Democrat Party (Nasdem) with 7%.

Analysts say the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) is unlikely to meet the 4% vote threshold and even the other more established parties – United Development (PPP), PAN and PKS – may struggle to get the votes needed to gain representation in the expanded 575-seat Parliament.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R) meets with supporters as he leaves the parliament after meeting New Zealand's prime minister in Wellington on March 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Marty Melville
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (R) signs autographs on March 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Marty Melville

With Widodo’s choice of Amin as running mate negating its use of religion as a weapon, the opposition remains fixated on the country’s sluggish economy. Says Uno: “Any time spent away from the economy would be a waste of time. It (Islam) just hasn’t come up in any of our focus group discussions with constituents.”

One inconvenient truth for Widodo is that the government’s efforts to reign in imports appear to be bearing little fruit with the country recording a US$1.82 billion trade deficit in October, the second highest this year after July’s US$2.03 billion, a five-yearly record.

Prabowo drew public ridicule recently for pledging to stop all food and energy imports, but his and Uno’s central message is really about foreign investment and job creation, which would mean a reversal of the contradictory nationalist policies that have been the main obstacles to renewed growth.

Brought up on low expectations, most Indonesians are either content with 5% growth – still below the region’s average – or are focused solely on the prices of basic commodities the government is working hard to keep stable. “We can do better,” Uno says. “We are punching way below our weight. We aren’t fulfilling our potential.”

But that has long been the complaint of economists across the board, certainly since the end of the 2004-2012 commodity boom which ushered in new economic realities that short-sighted policies and over-regulation have failed to recognize or to come to terms with.

If Widodo wins next April, many Indonesians will be looking to see if a new president emerges, free of some of the political constraints that have dogged his presidency so far. Those same hopes attended the start of Yudhoyono’s second and final term in 2009, then foundered on the president’s dogged unwillingness to make unpopular decisions.