Indonesian President Joko Widodo's supporters want him to serve more than two terms. Photo: Twitter

When media tycoon Surya Paloh broke away from Indonesia’s fading Golkar Party in 2011 he wasted little time in founding the National Democrat Party (Nasdem) to keep a pawn in the game.

Joined by other disaffected Golkar members who felt president Suharto’s old military-backed political machine had failed to change with the democratic times, Paloh’s Nasdem won a commendable 6.7% of the national vote, or 36 seats in the 560-seat House of Representatives, in its first election run in 2014.

More importantly, his was also the first party outside of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) to get behind aspiring presidential candidate Joko Widodo, later earning three Cabinet posts – attorney-general, forestry and environment and agrarian affairs and spatial planning – in Widodo’s new Cabinet as a reward.

Now Nasdem appears to have reaped the benefits of that loyalty by taking 9.05% of the vote in the April 17 legislative polls, leaving it with 59 seats in the expanded 575-seat Parliament and in fifth place behind the moderate Muslim-based National Awakening Party (PKB), which also made significant gains.

That could win Nasdem another Cabinet post, and given its past history of making few demands and offering steadfast loyalty, should give Widodo an important ally as he advances a reputed reform agenda to get a sluggish economy back on track.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo salutes during the country's 73rd Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace in Jakarta on August 17, 2018.Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo salutes during the country’s 73rd Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace in Jakarta, August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Widodo’s PDI-P led the field with 19.3% of the vote, equating to 128 seats in the recently expanded 575-seat lower house. But while opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) narrowly edged Golkar by 365,000 votes, the vagaries of electoral boundaries means it still trails in parliamentary seats 78 to 85.

By pandering to the conservative Muslim vote — and ignoring the adverse impact of the country’s first-ever simultaneous presidential and legislative elections — Prabowo may have deprived Gerindra of the coat-tail effect that would have elevated the party into second place.

Instead, some of that support seems to have gone to either the sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), his coalition ally, or conversely to parties which steered clear of the identity politics that Prabowo thought would carry him to victory.

Official results show Widodo outpaced Prabowo by a wide 55-45% margin.

Golkar won 2.4% less of the vote than in 2014, a poor showing considering the House’s new 15 seats were all allocated off of Java, where the party has always had a stronger electoral base. One consolation: the party now appears to have a better balance of seats on and off the world’s most populous island.

Before he departed, Paloh had spent 43 years in Golkar, working his way up from a party member in North Sumatra, the province bordering his native Aceh, to head of the national youth wing and finally as chairman of the advisory board.

Indonesian media magnate and political power broker Surya Paloh in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

He has never run for public office, however, focusing instead on building a business empire which includes the Media Indonesia daily, a string of regional publications and Metro TV, Indonesia’s first 24-hour news channel, along with mining and other interests.

Paloh, 67, an ally of Vice President and former Golkar party chairman Jusuf Kalla who once had presidential ambitions of his own, walked away from Golkar after losing out in a struggle for the leadership with wealthy businessman Aburizal Bakrie.

In Nasdem’s first election in 2014, much of its vote came not from Golkar deserters, as was widely expected, but rather from outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party that had actually taken votes from Golkar in 2009 and now sees them leaving – along with the presidential incumbency.

With a firm control on the party’s reins, the bearded tycoon was able to make important strategic decisions, including throwing his support behind regional governors and regents who would help consolidate Nasdem’s nationwide network in its early years.

Without party hacks to accommodate, he was also able to choose local favorites for the 2019 elections, though critics claimed that with Nasdem in charge of the Attorney General’s Office it used the threat of corruption cases to force some key regional figures to switch from other parties.

The party picked up seats in 29 of the 34 provinces, a superior ratio to all of the parties except PDI-P and Golkar, with its best performances in North Sumatra, Central and East Java and booming South Sulawesi, where Golkar has lost its foothold with Kalla’s pending retirement.

Fourth-ranked PKB, by comparison, won half of its 61 seats in Central and East Java, the stronghold of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, and the rest in 13 other provinces; the party’s geographic spread in Christian and other minority electorates with little NU influence was an interesting digression from previous elections.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks to his supporters after the presidential election in Jakarta, April 19, 2019. Photo: AFP Forun via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

The Democrat and National Mandate (PAN) parties lost ground, with both clearly reluctant to remain in Prabowo’s opposition coalition and now seemingly in political limbo or, as in the Democrats’ case, contemplating a return to the cross-benches it has occupied since 2014.

Newly bereaved, Democrat party leader Yudhoyono reportedly visits the gravesite of his late wife, Kristiani, every day and it could be some weeks before he returns to the political stage, where his two sons, presidential hopeful Agus Harimurti and newly elected legislator Edhie Baskoro, are managing party affairs.

It is unlikely PDI-P chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri will ever forgive Yudhoyono for unseating her in 2004, but she notably attended the former first lady’s funeral and warmly received his children when they called on her at the start of the post-Ramadan holiday.

PAN, to the annoyance of chairman Zulkifli Hasan, lost seven of the eight seats it held previously in Central Java, home of party founder and perennial trouble-maker Amien Rais who had insisted on PAN joining the Prabowo camp and then spent more time show-boating than helping the cause.

Rais underwent a day-long police interrogation in late May after he called for a “people’s power” uprising to protest the outcome of the presidential election. The 75-year-old politician emerged from the questioning a chastened figure and has had little to say since the interrogation.

“What I have been advocating is a ‘light’ people’s power,” explained Rais, whose antics have cost him his professorship at Jogjakarta’s Gadja Mada University. “It is not like people’s power which seeks regime change or changing a president in mid-term.”

Amien Rais recently called for a ‘people’s power’ uprising against Joko Widodo’s election win. Photo: Facebook

The two sharia-based parties, PKS and the United Development Party (PPP), won barely 11% of the national vote, but that can be misleading when many Islamists support some of the mainstream parties that give them what they want anyway.

PKS captured a record 52 seats, 12 more than in 2014, but 14 of those were in conservative West Java alone and another 15 in parts of Sumatra, where opposition ally Prabowo outperformed President Widodo by a significant margin.

Analysts put PKS’ gains in West Java down to followers of the newly-outlawed Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), most of whom did not vote in 2014 because their struggle for an Islamic caliphate means they do not recognize a democratically elected government.

Government sources claim HTI has also been responsible for influencing the families of serving and retired military officers, which may partly explain the surprising level of opposition to Widodo in segments of the 475,000-strong armed forces.

To a large extent, PKS also prospered at the expense of PPP, the country’s second oldest party, which barely cleared the 4% vote threshold required for House representation.

It failed to gain a seat in fully 26 provinces and will need a major overhaul if it is to avoid extinction in 2024, when the country finally goes through a long-awaited generational change.

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