Indonesian President Joko Widodo, wearing traditional Balinese attire, attends a ceremony to celebrate Indonesia's 74th Independence Day at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17, 2019. He has tried to stop speculation about extending his term. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency / Anton Raharjo

JAKARTA – Presidential chief of staff Moeldoko’s role in renewed efforts to wrest control of the centrist Democratic Party (DP) away from former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his family is raising questions about broader motives behind the move.

Until now, it has been widely seen as a campaign among party malcontents to forestall a Yudhoyono dynasty while providing Moeldoko, the 60-year-old former Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander, a political vehicle to run in the 2024 presidential elections.

But what puzzles many observers is President Joko Widodo’s silence on the affair and why he is permitting his chief of staff to pursue his own political ambitions amid pressing pandemic and economic issues.

Some analysts believe that by refusing to rein in his senior aide, Widodo is paying back Yudhoyono for his suspected behind-the-scenes role in last year’s demonstrations against the passage of the president’s signature Job Creation Omnibus Law.

Others take a longer and more serious view. They note that in the admittedly unlikely event of a change of leadership, the DP would become part of Widodo’s ruling coalition and give it the two-thirds majority in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) needed to effect constitutional changes.

That would mean not having to rely on the support of the 132-seat Regional Representatives Council (DPD), the upper house, which would almost certainly seek to exact a political price for its cooperation in any move to amend the charter.

Given the expected negative public reaction, it is still highly doubtful that the government would try to push for an amendment to revert to an indirect presidential election.

But some observers say such a scenario would give Widodo the opportunity to extend his presidency to a third term, which has been rumored in the past. Under current constitutional law, presidents are limited to two terms.    

DP general chairman Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, 42, called on Widodo to intervene after a breakaway faction chose Moeldoko as party head at what he argues was an illegal party congress in Medan, the North Sumatran capital, on March 5.

Then-Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (R) salutes as he leaves the presidential palace after a military ceremony for incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta on October 20, 2014. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Moeldoko was not present at the one-day meeting, but he told participants in a phone call that he accepted their decision, the first time he has openly acknowledged his support for the internal rebellion against the Yudhoyono clan.

The elder Yudhoyono is feeling doubly aggrieved, ruefully noting at a March 6 press conference that the general he promoted to head the TNI in 2013 had repaid him by trying to carry out what he described as a “cold-blooded” coup.

Moeldoko’s successor as TNI chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, was also approached by the mutineers, but he says he turned them down because he believed the takeover bid was “unhealthy” and also because of his loyalty to Yudhoyono, who had appointed him as army chief of staff in 2014.

After initially calling the revolt an internal party matter, chief political minister Mahfud MD said the government did not recognize Moeldoko’s appointment — at least until the Justice Ministry is formally asked to rule on the legitimacy of the congress.

Under the DP’s constitution, an extraordinary congress can only be called with the approval of Yudhoyono Senior, as chairman of the party’s High Council, two-thirds of provincial chairmen and half of the 514 district branch heads.

As it was, party sources claim there were no provincial chairmen and only 30 district chairmen among the estimated 500 people who attended the congress at a hotel on the outskirts of Medan.  

Observers recall a more even two-way split afflicting the Golkar party in 2016 when Widodo sided with his now-economic coordinating minister, Airlangga Hartarto, in a power struggle with party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, who was finally forced to resign.

The DP splinter group is led by three-term North Sumatra lawmaker Jhoni Allen Marbun, 60, one of seven senior members fired last month for inciting division within the seventh-ranked party, which holds 55 seats in the 575-seat House of Representatives.

Moeldoko, a retired military chief and newly appointed chief of staff to Indonesian President Joko Widodo's cabinet, attends his swearing in ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia January 17, 2018.  REUTERS/Darren Whiteside
Moeldoko, a retired military chief and chief of staff to Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, attends his swearing in ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia January 17, 2018. Photo: Agencies

Also sacked was former House speaker Marzuki Alie, ex-deputy secretary generals Muhammad Darmizal, 57, and Yus Sudarso, 57, former legislators Tri Yulianto, 59, and Syofwatillah Mohzaib, 44, and senior party official Ahmad Yahya.

Mabun and Alie were among the founders of the party in 2001, recognizing at the time that they needed a prominent figure like Yudhoyono, then-president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s political coordinating minister, to provide the necessary gravitas to put it on the map. 

When he met with the elder Yudhoyono on February 16, Mabun says he complained about the manner of Agus’ election last year and also criticized some of the unilateral actions taken by his youngest son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, 40, as head of the party’s parliamentary delegation.

“What binds us together is the feeling of disappointment that has come from fighting for years against a dynasty that has taken away our rights (as party members),” he told Tempo magazine only days before the Medan congress.

During a press conference last month, Yahya also complained about the top-down process by which regional party heads were selected. “The negative impression that the Democratic Party is an exclusive party and belongs to one family must be removed,” he said.

It isn’t clear whether Agus will take the next step of replacing Mabun with the secondhighest vote-getter on the DP candidate list, a process that was scrapped with the birth of democracy in 1999 but revived in 2004 as a sop to party bosses. 

With second-term president Yudhoyono at the helm, the Democrats won 148 seats in the then 560-seat Parliament in the 2009 legislative elections, or  20.8% of the national vote, far ahead of the Golkar Party and PDI-P and a whopping 98 seats more than in 2004.

But without the incumbency, it has gone steadily downhill, slumping to fourth place in 2014 with 10.1% of the vote and then slipping further to 7.7%, or 54 seats, in 2019 behind the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS).

PKS remains the sole opposition party, but the long-standing enmity that has existed between Yudhoyono and Megawati since he ousted the PDI-P matriarch from the presidency in 2004 ensures that the Democrats have remained outside the ruling coalition.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo L) and PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Moeldoko played a key role in arranging a meeting between Megawati and defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto after the 2019 election, which led to Prabowo’s surprise inclusion as defense minister in Widodo’s new Cabinet.

While long-standing State Secretary Pratikno, a close Widodo associate, handles administrative and day-to-day affairs at the palace, Moeldoko is regarded more as a political manager whose value lies in his outreach to the military.

In that role, he appears to see himself not simply as a presidential aide, but as a player in his own right. “He speaks like he is the principal, not an agent of the principal,” says one foreign diplomat who has had several meetings with the retired general. 

But he hardly looks like a presidential contender. Even if he does succeed in taking over the Democrats, a long shot by any yardstick, he will still need the support of two or three other parties to attain the threshold of 20% of the 2019 vote to earn a presidential nomination.

He also doesn’t appear in any of the popularity polls, currently topped by Prabowo, leader of the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra), and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 52, an impressive dark horse contender from PDI-P who still lacks a national profile. 

Politically, Widodo has never been in such a strong political position. He is apparently determined to end his presidency on a high note, rather than as the lame duck it was widely thought he would be given the pandemic’s impact on the economy and many of his programs. 

Fourteen months into his second term, he has reined in the country’s Islamist movement, passed the omnibus law he hopes will attract more foreign investment, launched a sovereign wealth fund and overseen major progress in Indonesia’s aspiration to a prominent place in the global supply chain.

In doing so, he has held together his seven-party coalition in a way that must be the envy of his predecessors, though Indonesia’s brand of democracy, driven for the most part by access to government resources, leaves virtually no room for an effective opposition.

Laborers take part in a rally against a controversial new law which critics fear will favor investors at the expense of labor rights and the environment in Jakarta on October 22, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

For all the criticism heaped upon him, Widodo was always going to walk a thin line between trying to contain the health crisis and keeping the economy ticking over, well aware that the social consequences of a prolonged lockdown could be as damaging as the pandemic itself.

It has done him little harm politically, polls show. Conducted in late January, an Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) survey gave the president an overall approval rating of 69.8%, slightly down on the 72.4% rating last September but with a surprising 85% of respondents saying they were satisfied with the current economic situation.

At the least, Widodo’s endorsement is still likely to be a powerful tool for whomever he chooses to support as his successor — and the protector of what he hopes will be an enduring legacy.