Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures at a live nationwide television debate with opponent Prabowo Subianto from Jakarta on July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad
Indonesian leader Joko Widodo has opted for less restrictions while trying to open the country and keep the economy ticking over. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

JAKARTA – Far from being relegated to lame-duck status, President Joko Widodo’s endorsement may be shaping up to be one of the key factors when Indonesia goes to the polls in 2024 to elect a successor to a former town mayor who wants his legacy to live long after him.

The latest opinion poll by Indikator Politik Indonesia (IPI) shows Widodo with a popularity rating of 72%, the highest public seal of approval he has received since scoring 78.4% in 2018, one year out from his election to a second term.

The president has made it clear he has no intention of lying down on the job in the two years he has left, despite speculation his seven-party ruling coalition will start to fray at the edges as political leaders jockey for position ahead of the elections.

Hosting the G20 Summit in late October will rank as a major milestone in his presidency, but more than that is his determination to press ahead with the US$33 billion plan to move Indonesia’s national capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

Apart from flooding and other environmental issues burdening congested Jakarta, Widodo has cited the need to re-balance national development and correct the growing inequality among the country’s 270 million population as reasons for the relocation.

Some analysts also see a political dimension to the move, noting that it gained momentum after the closely-fought 2019 presidential race which showed the extent of the hold Islamists have on West Java, the country’s largest province surrounding Jakarta.

Widodo says the presidential palace and four ministries – the state secretariat, home affairs, foreign affairs and defense – will all move in 2024 in a process that is ultimately expected to stretch out over 15 years.

“It should not be seen as purely a physical move,” he told editors last week. “The important thing is to develop a new pattern of thinking where the center of government is based on innovation and green technology and universities and hospitals will be a magnet for digital talent.”

A map showing the location of the proposed new capital in East Kalimantan. Image: Facebook

A crowning achievement

The Covid-19 pandemic appeared to have left the ambitious project dead in the water, but Widodo clearly wants to make it the crowning achievement of a presidency marked by historic advances in infrastructure and industrial development.

Parliament recently passed long-delayed legislation that lays the legal framework for the creation of Nusantara, the name chosen for the capital, hopefully ensuring the project survives the transition to a new post-2024 administration. 

Nusantara is an old Indonesian term that literally means “the archipelago in between” – referring to its position between Asia and Australia. The site of the capital is roughly equidistant between the country’s eastern and western extremities. 

The bill allows for the creation of a ministerial-level authority to supervise the construction of Nusantara, which will be powered by green energy and cover 256,000 hectares of mostly plantation land north of Balikpapan, East Kalimantan’s province capital.

The government expects to finance 53.4% of the overall cost from the state budget, a sharp increase over the previously stated 19.2%, leaving the remainder to public-private partnerships (PPP), international and domestic investors and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Widodo’s continuing popularity, built on a common man approach and a savvy political touch, has led to renewed calls among his ardent supporters for a three-year extension to his term to allow him more time to complete his agenda.

“The people have to decide which issues need to be prioritized,” said Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia, who is known to be close to the president. “Is it containing the pandemic, recovering the economy or choosing a new leadership through elections?”

According to a senior government official, Widodo is still intent on stepping down on schedule, aware that an extension is opposed by most of the political parties and by civil society activists, who say it would be a backward step for Indonesian democracy.

Despite early criticism when world leaders were struggling to deal with the health crisis, Indonesians appear to be satisfied with Widodo’s handling of the pandemic and his single-minded mission to ensure the economy makes a full recovery.

“The people are quite objective,” noted Indikator’s executive director, Burhanuddin Muhtado, in unveiling the results of December’s poll. “They know when to give credit and when to criticize.”

Ganjar Pranowo the governor of Central Java, front. Photo: WikiCommons

Approval rating rising

A previous poll taken by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) showed Widodo’s approval rating at 68.5%, sustaining a steady rise since his popularity hit a low point in 2020 when the government was struggling to contain the coronavirus.  

Early signs point to Widodo favoring Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 53,  as his successor, but that would bring him into conflict with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, matriarch of his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P).

Observers note that Megawati and her daughter, House Speaker Puan Maharani, 48, have always regarded Widodo and Pranowo as little more than party functionaries – an attitude that led to tensions in the early days of Widodo’s ascent to power.

It took Megawati a long time to swallow her pride and accept that Widodo was a far more popular prospect than she was among Indonesian voters, reluctantly bowing to the inevitable only four months before the 2014 elections.

The situation is now repeating itself. Despite her 1% poll rating, Maharani sees herself as the presidential candidate, ruling out a scenario where she would be the running mate to Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) leader and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

In fact, political sources say that inside the party she has been peddling the baffling idea of dispensing with the support of other parties entirely and contesting the presidential race alone, with Pranowo as her vice-presidential candidate.

The top-ranked PDI-P is the only party that has more than 20% of the seats in the 575-seat Parliament, the legal threshold required for a single party or coalition of parties to nominate a presidential candidate.

Playing second fiddle to Maharani would seem inconceivable when Pranowo, a former two-term PDI-P parliamentarian, is now neck-and-neck with Prabowo in SMRC polls, rising from 6.9% in March 2020 to 19.2% last December without raising a hand.

An earlier Charta Politika Indonesia (CPI) survey again put him narrowly ahead of Prabowo with a significant gap to Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, the former education minister who is destined to lead the opposition Islamic forces that always come to the fore at election time.

Analysts note that while Pranowo is relatively unknown outside populous Java, the often-controversial Prabowo has the advantage of better name recognition and seemingly a wider base of support from two unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2014 and 2019. 

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto prays on his campaign trail at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, April 7, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Andalou Agency/Anton Raharjo

Prabowo yet to decide

In a November survey, millennial-orientated pollster KedaiKOPI had Prabowo leading Ganjar by 24.3% to 22.9% based on simple recognition, but falling nearly a percentage point behind when respondents were subject to questioning on specific topics.

Friends say Prabowo has yet to form a party campaign committee or prepare in any other way for 2024, leaving open the possibility that he may still decide not to run if he faces the prospect of ending up a three-time loser.

Maharani, who told a recent private dinner that Widodo owed everything to her mother, has none of the charisma required for the presidency, but she also has few close friends and is said to keep even her political allies at arm’s length.

Of the presidential hopefuls, it is only she and Golkar Party chairman and chief economic minister Airlangga Hartarto who have felt compelled to spend heavily on street posters at this early stage to boost their public standing – so far with no appreciable result.

In the KedaiKOPI survey, House Speaker Puan polled a distance fifth behind former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, Social Affairs Minister Tri Rismaharini, East Java Governor Khofifah Parawansa and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati when respondents were asked what woman they would elect as president.

One senior PDI-P official told Asia Times that if it wasn’t for Megawati, who retains an iron grip of the party as the guardian of her father, founding president Sukarno’s legacy, Pranowo would have the majority of support among ruling party members.

As it is, there have been signs of a growing split between old guard PDI-P officials and younger cadre over the Pranowo issue that could hint at further trouble ahead as the 2024 election shadow lengthens across the country in the latter half of the year. 

Little is known about the strength of Pranowo’s ambitions. He has told friends he won’t run if he is not chosen as the PDI-P candidate, but analysts say that could change if he is endorsed by Widodo, whose relationship with the governor goes back to when Widodo was mayor of Solo.

“Jokowi is another thing,” says one political strategist, using the president’s nickname. “He’s trying to be a kingmaker who is looking for someone to continue his legacy. He can’t control the mechanism within PDI-P, but he could influence other parties to support Ganjar.”

A former minister says if Pranowo feels humiliated enough by the treatment he has been receiving from the PDI-P leadership, he could well make the difficult decision to break away from a party he has been actively involved in since the 1990s.

As an independent, and with Widodo behind him, he would likely draw the backing of a range of parties, including the fourth-ranked National Awakening Party (PKB), the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama which has a strong following in vote-rich Central and East Java.

Pranowo’s wife, Siti Atiqoh Supriyanti, whom he met at Jogjakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, is the granddaughter of an influential NU leader and founder of an Islamic boarding school in Purbalingga in western central Java.

Interestingly, NU’s newly-named central board includes a sprinkling of appointees from PDI-P, Golkar and the United Development Party (PPP) in what appears to be an effort to broaden the organization’s base of political support.