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 – The ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle’s (PDI-P) recent decision to stop pushing for a constitutional amendment on state policy-making clearly reflects the realization that it will open the door for another amendment – this one aimed at extending President Joko Widodo’s term beyond 2024.

Led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose only daughter, House of Representatives (DPR) Speaker Puan Maharani, has presidential aspirations, PDI-P’s opposition is crucial to heading off what activists say would be a backward step for democracy.

But in a rare interview last week, Maharani hinted at dissenting “voices” within PDI-P itself, describing them as “personal and private” and insisting they did not reflect the party’s official position or that of a majority in the House of Representatives (DPR).

The normally reticent Maharani, 48, denied rumors she had been offered the chance of replacing Vice President Ma’ruf Amin if the PDI-P changed course on the issue. The 79-year-old conservative Muslim cleric has rarely been seen in public in recent months.

Noting the obstacles in the way of a mid-term change and the fact that only three political parties are seeking an extension, she added: “It is clear the government, the DPR and the election commission have agreed the elections will be held in 2024. Full stop.”

The divisions within the PDI-P stem in part from friction between supporters of charismatic Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 53, a party functionary, and those of Maharani, fed largely by the yawning lead Pranowo has over her in presidential opinion polls.

The latest clash has come over the construction of a dam in Benser, Central Java, with Ganjar backing the project against the opposition of four-term PDI-legislator Bambang “Pacul” Wuryanto, 65, widely considered to be Maharani’s closest associate.

Wuryanto represents Central Java Constituency Four, encompassing the regency of Karanganyar, Ganjar’s birthplace; Maharani’s neighboring Central Java Five electorate includes Surakarta, Widodo’s hometown, together with the three regencies around it.

Equally concerning is Megawati’s three-month absence from public life, beginning with the cancellation in early December of the PDI-P’s annual National Working Meeting (RAKERNAS), one of the most important events on the party agenda which Widodo was to have opened.

Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri (L) and her daughter Puan Maharani (R) in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

Without Megawati, Indonesia’s political landscape would be transformed, such is the authority she exercises over the 128-seat PDI-P, the country’s biggest party, and the often-rocky relationship she has with the stoic Widodo.

Maharani and other members of the Sukarno family would probably struggle to retain Megawati’s tight grip on the PDI-P, particularly with rebellious younger party cadre making it clear they prefer Pranowo for the 2024 race, even if his ambitions are unknown.

Sources quoting a high-level palace official claim Megawati spent at least part of the downtime in a well-equipped, privately-owned medical center in central Jakarta, but few people, including other party leaders, are aware she was there or why.

Last September, she was reportedly rushed to hospital in the middle of the night. Aides called it a hoax, but it is still believed there was some truth to the report even if she did appear to make a quick recovery. Rumors that she is in ill health have persisted in elite circles.

On January 10, the wan-looking matriarch delivered a videotaped speech on PDI-P founding day, warning: “There are so many political vulnerabilities in the ups and downs of a nation due to it not being able to find solutions to conflicts.”

She did not reappear in public again until March 10 when she was pictured with Widodo strolling in a flower garden an hour’s drive from the Bogor presidential palace, south of Jakarta, from where he now prefers to run the affairs of state. 

Maharani said they talked about plants, but the conversation is suspected to have dwelled on the renewed efforts by some of Widodo’s inner circle to secure an extension so he can complete his pandemic-delayed agenda.

Among other priorities, the two years lost to Covid-19 have had a major impact on the president’s ambitious plan to move the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan as a way of re-balancing the country’s economic and political development.

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. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

Although he has done little to rein in his team, Widodo denies he is looking for a longer term, which would run the risk of spoiling his legacy and damaging Indonesia’s hard-earned reputation as the world’s largest Muslim democracy.

The second-ranked Golkar Party and the National Awakening (PKB) and National Mandate (PAN) parties support the proposed two-year extension, as does PKB’s influential parent, the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama. 

But with the backing of elements of the 136-seat Regional Representative Council (DPD), the normally toothless upper house, the PDI-P and its allies have the votes to defeat the move in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the highest legislative body which decides on constitutional issues.

For Maharani, extending Widodo’s term would spell the end, at least for now, of her faint hopes of running for the presidency and continuing her mother’s single-minded mission to build on the legacy of her father, founding president Sukarno.

Faced with a similar decision in 2014, Megawati was finally forced to admit that Widodo, whom she still regards as a mere party functionary, was far more popular than she was. But her dithering came close to costing Widodo the election in his race with the hard-charging Prabowo.

Most expectations are Maharani will stand for the vice-presidency, possibly with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, leader of the third-ranked Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) who leads in the polls and is expected to make his third consecutive bid for the top job.

Chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan, one of Widodo’s closest advisers, and PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar have been criticized for claiming that most Indonesians favor an extension, supposedly based on data from up to 100 million social media users.

But public surveys conducted by a range of credible polling companies in the past few months all show at least 60% of respondents are against it, while still giving Widodo a 70% job approval rating that most world leaders would die for.

Another research group specializing in what is known as “big data analysis” on the internet found only a minority of netizens were engaged in conversations favoring election delays.

A week after the flower garden meeting, PDI-P parliamentary leader Ahmad Basarah announced a pause in the party’s move for a constitutional amendment that would restore the MPR’s authority to formulate state policy guidelines (GBHN), development priorities institutionalized under president Suharto’s regime.

General view of Indonesia’s parliament while President Joko Widodo addresses the nation, August 16, 2019. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency via AFP

At a minimum, analysts say re-establishing this parliamentary directive over the presidency would provide the MPR with a new constitutional tool to control and arguably remove the nation’s head of state if he fails to comply.

Worried about the way it undermines the relationship between the president and the electorate, reformists have long feared it would also allow the PDI-P to push for a return to indirect presidential elections – a move that would draw a much harsher reaction than extending the president’s term.

Inherent in that, say analysts, is Megawati’s view that the people are not to be trusted, given the fear among like-minded pluralist nationalists of a sectarian Islamist becoming the country’s leader.

In her March 22 interview with CNN Indonesia, which has only limited viewership, Maharani sought to differentiate between a constitutional amendment “about holding power” and one (on state policy guidelines) that affects the nation’s future.”

She insisted there was no room to bargain and dismissed the idea of replacing Vice-President Amin as part of any deal. “There’s no such thing,” she said. “How can it be? It is not being discussed, of course not. Until 2024 the Vice-President is Ma’ruf. Period.”

In what appeared to be the PDI-P’s strongest statement yet on the subject, she did call the new capital, to be known as Nusantara, a “national objective” and sought to allay concerns that its construction would not be advanced enough by 2024 to survive the Widodo presidency.

The concept, she said, was a non-Java-centric capital that would promote political and economic equity. “This has become a national commitment through a law, which I honor. It must be continued, whatever the situation (but) there is no way it can be done by the Jokowi government alone.”

Asked what she would do if Megawati did not choose her for higher office, she replied: “Even as a daughter I don’t know what is on her mind. It is not about mother and daughter. If that was the case I’d say ‘Mom, this is what I want.’ It depends on what she will assign me to do. I feel capable and I am waiting for the next step.”

Maharani did not rule out someone from outside the Sukarno family eventually leading the PDI-P, but added: “We in the family sincerely hope it will be someone who has shared in the party’s struggle and who ensures the ideology and philosophy of Sukarno is continued.”