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 – With popular President Joko Widodo staying mostly silent, powerful political figures around him appear to be persisting in their efforts to extend his term beyond scheduled elections in 2024, despite one recent poll showing the majority of Indonesian voters are dead set against it.

A recent poll by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) saw more than 70% of respondents reject a term extension, yet another signal to the country’s political elite that Indonesians would regard such a move as a significant setback for democracy.

Some critics have gone beyond that, with commentator Endy Bayuni warning that “dangerously subversive” minds were behind the move, which arose as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic setting back a second-term agenda that would have capped Widodo’s legacy.

Since the fall of long-serving president Suharto and the birth of democratic rule in 1998-99, voters have demonstrated a strong determination to protect their right to choose the nation’s leaders – something the leaders themselves don’t always grasp.

“This is a dangerous mentality that, if allowed to develop, would be a sure recipe for the end of democracy and a return to authoritarianism,” Bayuni wrote in the Jakarta Post. “All talk about democratic regression would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Widodo has repeatedly insisted he is not looking for an extension and a recent agreement between the government and the House of Representatives that set February 14 as the date for the simultaneous 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections seemed to settle that.

But pro-democracy activists aren’t convinced, clearly for good reason when the second-ranked Golkar Party, the National Awakening Party (PKB), political wing of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, and the National Mandate Party (PAN) have publicly endorsed the idea.

Golkar is headed by Economic Coordinating Minister Airlangga Hartarto and includes among its membership chief maritime affairs minister Luhut Panjaitan, the president’s right-hand man who is also chairman of the party’s advisory board.

Analysts note that Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia, hand-picked by Widodo for his second Cabinet, has been one of the most vocal supporters of an extension, saying the business community wants an election delay to enable the economy to recover from the pandemic.

Other reasons have ranged from allowing more time for the president to complete the first phase of his controversial and expensive plan to move the nation’s capital to East Kalimantan to even the global fallout from what now appears to be a prolonged Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The one major stumbling block, however, is the 1945 Constitution, which prescribes only two five-year terms; an amendment to that provision requires the backing of half plus one of the 711-seat People’s Consultative Assembly, the highest law-making body.

The ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) has come out against the plan, but that’s because its chairman, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri – with whom Widodo has always had difficult relations – has presidential hopes for her daughter, House Speaker Puan Maharani.

PDI-P secretary-general Hasto Kristiyanto, a Megawati loyalist, has said the party wants to keep faith with the Constitution, pointing out that a disruption in the election cycle could lead to political instability.

Analysts find that remark difficult to swallow when the PDI-P matriarch, daughter of founding president Sukarno, has long been linked to efforts to return to an indirect presidential election in the MPR, a move that would almost provoke a nationwide outcry.

The naysayers also include media baron Surya Paloh’s National Democrat Party (Nasdem), former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s centrist Democrat Party and the Islamic-leaning Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), which forms Parliament’s only political opposition.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s third-ranked Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerinda) has also said it will abide by the Constitution; Prabowo, who has stayed well out of the firing line, currently heads all opinion polls as he ponders a third bid for the presidency.

Those supporting the extension hold only 187 seats in the 575-seat lower house, and even with the full backing of the toothless upper house, the 136-seat People’s Representative Council (DPD), they would still fall far short of forcing through an amendment.

Constitution law experts and other critics say Widodo has to be more explicit in his rejection of the extension if the controversy is to be laid to rest. Only last week, in what was seen as another act of obfuscation, he said a democracy allowed anyone to express an opinion.

Indonesian history is replete with instances where political leaders reject a course of action, then claim that public pressure – often built on either high popularity or raw power – has persuaded them to change their mind.

In that, Megawati herself claims to be a victim. She has never forgiven Yudhoyono, then her chief security minister, for going back on what she said was his pledge not to contest the first direct presidential election in 2004, which she lost by a wide margin.

What is obviously encouraging extension supporters is that Widodo would be almost impossible to beat in any new election. The most recent LSI poll shows his public satisfaction level at 66.6%, down from 71.4% last December but still impressive given the challenges he has faced.

Other surveys by Kompas, the country’s biggest newspaper, and Indopol put the president’s rating at over 70% in what can be taken as further evidence of the high marks the former town mayor gets for keeping the economy afloat while dealing with an unprecedented and unforeseen health crisis.

Judging by the balance of opinion, however, an imaginary poll among most Indonesian analysts would demonstrate an equally resounding conviction that any attempt by Widodo to overstay his welcome would do untold harm to his legacy of impressive achievement.