Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, dressed in a traditional costume of the Baduy tribe from Banten province, during his state-of-the-nation address at a general assembly of parliament in Jakarta on August 16, 2021. Photo: AFP / Bagus Indahono

JAKARTA – Indonesian President Joko Widodo is finding it nearly impossible to fend off a rising tide of speculation that he aims to extend his second and final term so he can complete a legacy-fulfilling agenda curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “I have no intention, then and now, of ever becoming president for a third term,” he said recently in his third denial in the past 10 months. “I have made this clear many times in the past and I have no intention of changing my stance.”

This time, in an effort to avoid ambiguity, he also rejected rumors of a three-year extension of his current five-year term using the damaging fallout from the pandemic to justify an emergency situation in delaying the next presidential election beyond 2024.

A former attorney-general believes the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country’s highest law-making body, can approve an extension without amending the constitution, which specifically limits the national president to only two terms. 

Term limits were put in place as the country emerged from 32 years under the autocratic president Suharto, who ruled from 1967 to his eventual downfall at the height of the financial crisis in May 1998.

Article 7 of the 1945 Charter says the president and vice president shall hold office “for a term of five years and may subsequently be re-elected to the same office for one further term only” – without specifying for how long.

Analysts say the MPR would still have to find a way of navigating around the 2003 Presidential Election Law, which mandates an election “once every five years.”

The speculation intensified after Widodo met with MPR chairman and three-term Golkar Party legislator Bambang Soesatyo in mid-August to discuss “limited” constitutional amendments.

Soesatyo claimed the discussions centered solely on changes that would allow the MPR to revive the past practice of setting five-year State Policy Guidelines (GBHN), giving the House of Representatives (DPR) the power to reject government bills that fail to meet those conditions.

But well-placed political sources insist a term extension was raised at the meeting, with Widodo responding that it was “up to the MPR.” Says one insider: “He’s testing the waters. If he sees there is not much reaction, then it will go forward. In my opinion, he is playing with fire.”

A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes, in Tangerang, Banten, prior to its removal with police launching an investigation, August 12, 2021. Photo: AFP / Fajrin Raharjo

Analysts also point to the National Mandate Party’s (PAN) belated admission into the six-party ruling coalition after a two-year wait, which now gives Widodo’s government control over 471 of the 575 seats in the DPR.

The 136-seat People’s Representative Council (DPD), the MPR’s supposed non-aligned upper chamber, would be expected to follow the government’s lead on constitutional changes that require a two-thirds majority of the 711-seat combined assembly.

Indonesia’s constitution has been amended only four times, all in the early years of democratic rule between 1999 and 2002. Any further changes would be controversial, especially if they are viewed as a democratically backward step.

While there is no particular reason for disbelieving the president’s denials, Indonesian leaders have often done an about-face on various political issues by claiming they are bending to the political will.

After winning the Jakarta governorship in 2012, even Widodo changed his mind about running for the presidency two years later – sooner than widely expected – as his opinion poll numbers soared.

Most commentators feel he would not be unhappy at getting a chance to complete his Covid-delayed agenda, including the launch of his cherished US$33 billion project to move the national capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

Palace loyalists have been most active in “drafting” him into an extension. But among many of the complex issues confronting the government would be whether to also postpone the 2024 legislative elections, which were held simultaneously for the first time in 2019.

For legislators, Widodo staying on longer than his five-year term would allow them to avoid the risks and costs of facing voters again until 2027; the pandemic and resulting economic downturn has robbed many MPs of the resources needed to contest an election.

The government’s biggest hurdle on the term extension would be convincing Indonesians that the country remains in an emergency situation when it has been busy trying to persuading the public that it is getting on top of the health crisis.

A Balinese temple priest receives a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during a mass Covid-19 vaccination program in Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia on March 16, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Johanes Christo

Civil society activists would be expected to react strongly to the move, seeing it as a further erosion of democracy with the Islamic-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) now the sole opposition while former ex-president president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party plays a centrist role.

The government has already rammed through controversial amendments to the Anti-Corruption Law and overcome spirited labor objections to provisions in the 2020 Job Creation Omnibus Law, underlining a seeming ability to do whatever it wants legislatively.

Apart from the potential for street unrest, a term extension would almost certainly be challenged at the Constitutional Court. But some legal experts believe the nine justices would shy away from making a decision.

“I don’t think the court would second-guess the MPR,” says one lawyer.  “It (the MPR) is the highest body and they would probably say they don’t have that authority.”

Critics say the overall caliber of the court has declined since it was first established in 2003. Some recent key decisions and rejections, they say, have been narrow-minded, further eroding confidence in the body. 

Although Defense Minister and Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) chairman Prabowo Subianto still tops most presidential opinion polls, one senior party politician says as bitter as the ex-soldier would be, he would be compelled to go along with the extension or risk being left out in the cold. 

At this point, the presidential election appears to be shaping into a contest between Prabowo, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 52, a former education minister and the sole recognized opposition candidate.

If Widodo steps aside, it would be the first three-way race since 2009 when incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono beat Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla, his former vice president, to win a second term.

Enjoying a populous but narrow base in Central and East Java, the 52-year-old Pranowo is emerging as the 2024 dark horse with a charisma that has already drawn comparisons to Widodo and further afield to French President Emmanuel Macron.

But as a long-term and presumably loyal PDI-P functionary, he has even more of a problem than Widodo in dealing with Megawati, the powerful matriarch whose colorless daughter, DPR Speaker Puan Maharani, 49, is the presumed running mate to Prabowo.

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is aiming for the presidency in 2024. Image: Facebook

While Pranowo is close to Prabowo in the polls, Maharani languishes in the low single digits, alongside Golkar chairman and Chief Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 58, who is under pressure to revive the party’s fortunes. 

Fixated on continuing the dynasty of her father, founding president Sukarno, it took the 74-year-old Megawati too long to recognize that Widodo was a far better candidate than she was in 2014, almost to the point where it cost him the election.

But she is still a commanding figure. When fake news spread recently that she had been hospitalized in critical condition, analysts were quick to speculate on what the game-changing impact her passing would have on the political landscape.

As hard as it would be, Pranowo may already be considering whether to break away from PDI-P and form his own coalition, initially built around the fourth-ranked National Awakening Party (PKB), the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) whose support made a key difference in Widodo’s re-election victory over Prabowo in 2019.

Given an expected shift in alliances in the run-up to 2024, a rising star like Pranowo could also draw in second-rated Golkar, with Hartarto as a prospective vice president, and publisher Surya Paloh’s 59-seat National Democrat Party (Nasdem).

Pranowo’s biggest asset may be his attractive wife, Siti Atikah Supriyanti, 49, the daughter of prominent Central Java Nahdlatul Ulamacleric Akhmad Musodik Supriyadi, who has helped foster a large social media since her husband was elected governor in 2013.

Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo could follow in Widodo’s footsteps to the presidency. Photo: Facebook

Unbeknown to them, Supriyanti worked as an anonymous city hall civil servant under Widodo and then his successor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, when they served as Jakarta governor. Like Pranowo, she is a graduate of Jogjakarta’s Gadjah Mahda University.

The governor’s only baggage appears to be as one of the alleged beneficiaries of the 2009 electronic identity card scandal engineered by former Golkar chairman and then DPR speaker Setya Novanto, who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2018.

As a DPR member between 2004 and 2014, Pranowo was accused of being part of a wide circle of politicians, government officials and companies who benefitted from the $179 million rip-off. But he and others were never prosecuted and his career has not been tainted by corruption since.