Indonesia President Joko Widodo salutes during a ceremony to mark Independence Day at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, August 17, 2017 Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Puspa Perwitasari
Indonesia President Joko Widodo salutes during a ceremony to mark Independence Day at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, August 17, 2017 Photo: Twitter

Standing in front of the presidential jet as he departed for the G20 summit in Japan, Joko Widodo could be forgiven for savoring victory in the court battle that confirmed beyond a legal doubt his re-election as Indonesia’s national leader.

Now comes the hard part: forming a functional, reform-oriented Cabinet that will satisfy every party in his ruling coalition.

“The people have spoken,” Widodo declared, minutes after the Constitutional Court ruled on June 28 that opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto had failed to prove his claims of “structured, systematic and massive” fraud in the April 17 presidential election.

All nine justices decided the plaintiffs had failed to prove claims of vote buying, vote tampering and the use of the state apparatus to get Widodo and running mate Ma‘ruf Amin over the line by a final 55-45% margin.

With the opposition camp splintering and the conservative Muslim lobby losing its taste for a lost cause, security forces had only a handful of demonstrators to worry about when the verdict was finally announced a day earlier than planned.

By then, the focus was already on how Widodo will parcel out positions in his new 35-member Cabinet in an effort to bring the country together after an election that revealed a sharper-than-ever divide between moderate and doctrinaire Muslim voters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays during Nuzulul Quran event at Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Speculation is rife about how many concessions Widodo is willing to make and how they may impact on his ability to govern.

Prabowo’s third-ranked Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) appears to have turned down an invitation to join Widodo’s coalition, which already boasts five parties and a comfortable 349-seat majority in the 575-seat Parliament.

But with his two opposition allies, ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party and the National Mandate Party (PAN), changing sides, that leaves Gerindra and the sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) as the 128-seat opposition.

At one point it looked like PKS would be the only party on the opposition benches, hardly a good advertisement for Indonesia’s fledgling democracy, even though parties have only vague policy platforms and a cultural desire for consensus stifles healthy debate.

But Gerindra legislator Muhammad Syafri’i, a member of Parliament’s law commission, seemed to settle matters by declaring that the party had decided to remain in the opposition “to uphold the honor of democracy.”

“This is important in order to maintain checks and balances towards ensuring the quality of government policies,” he said in what looked like an official pronouncement on where the party stood.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks on defending Islam in Jakarta, December 2, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Anton Raharjo

Opening gambit or not – and the party leadership’s position was still not entirely clear in mid-week – Widodo could never agree to Prabowo’s demands for four key ministerial posts, reportedly state enterprises, agriculture, finance and defense.

With the possible exception of agriculture, all four are potential deal-breakers – and the mercurial retired general knows that only too well.

In April last year, when there was speculation that Widodo and Prabowo might join political forces, Prabowo torpedoed a deal by demanding seven seats in any new Cabinet, including the defense portfolio, during a meeting with presidential political adviser Luhut Panjaitan.

The current defense minister, former army chief Ryamizard Ryacudu, 69, a favorite of ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, is keen to serve in the post again in Widodo’s new government. What former president Megawati wants she usually gets, particularly now that her party holds a poll-topping 128 seats.

The finance portfolio is also out of the question. Even if well-regarded Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is moved over to the economic coordinating post, which is by no means certain, the president will want to have his hands firmly on the budgetary process.

Indonesia Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati gestures during a meeting at the Finance Ministry office in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 3, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Rosa Panggabean/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTX2XC1W
Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati during a meeting at the Finance Ministry office in Jakarta, January 3, 2017 Antara Foto/Rosa Panggabean

The state enterprise job is another no-no, although the future of current minister Rini Soemarno, who Megawati is known to dislike, is uncertain after Panjaitan took over her previous role of supervising the Jakarta-Bandung fast-rail project and other large Chinese-funded projects.

Catering to seven parties instead of just five is still going to be difficult and seems to rule out reports that the president wants to stack his Cabinet with professionals so he can embark on an ambitious reform agenda during his second term.

The two biggest parties, PDI-P and Golkar, will both want their share of the spoils. So will the National Awakening Party (PKB), effectively the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, whose support in East and Central Java was crucial to Widodo’s win.

Analysts believe NU will be seeking more than just the religious affairs portfolio, currently held by the sharia-based United Development Party (PPP), which barely cleared the 4% vote threshold needed for parliamentary representation.

Media tycoon Surya Paloh’s National Democrat Party (Nasdem) outperformed expectations and may feel it has earned more than its current three seats. There is also the need to accommodate PAN and the Democrats, the two opposition turncoats.

Theoretically, at least, more technocrats in the Cabinet would allow Widodo to change course and achieve a better balance between his nationalist policies and the need for more foreign investment if Indonesia is to grow by more than 5% over the next five years.

Bird’s eye view of Indonesia’s Parliament in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

The president may feel he has little to lose in his second and final term, but as all his predecessors learned there are always political debts to pay.

Otherwise there is a danger of him becoming a lame duck well before his time, with all the adverse policy implications that would entail.

Opinions are mixed on the prospect of a weak Gerindra-led opposition, particularly under a presidential system where there is no chance of bringing down the government through a no-confidence debate.

In the past, governing coalitions often begin to fray at the edges as new general elections approach.

For all the talk of bolstering democracy, being in the opposition is not popular in consensus-driven Indonesia, where most people have negative perceptions of opposition parties as trouble-makers intent on making mischief and creating instability.

More important, parties don’t maintain their standing by improving links to their constituencies. Rather, they do it by sustaining good relations with the government to allow them access to the public purse and rent-seeking activities.

Critics blame this alienation between the parties and voters on another hangover from Indonesia’s authoritarian past – ex-president Suharto’s so-called “floating-mass” policy – which effectively cut parties off from genuine attachment to the grassroots population.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Normally I don’t learn article on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look at and do it!
    Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very great article.
    plenty of fish natalielise

Leave a comment