JAKARTA – Risking a confrontation with ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, with whom he has always had strained relations, President Joko Widodo has dropped his broadest hint yet he will endorse Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo as his successor at the 2024 presidential election.

With Pranowo seated in front of him at a recent national working meeting of the president’s Pro-Jokowi (Projo) support group in Magelang, Central Java, he told the crowd: “Speaking of politics, let’s not be hasty, even though the one we may support (in 2024) is actually here.”

The May 21 statement will have upset Megawati, who has ignored Pranowo’s growing popularity and is thought to be grooming her daughter, parliament speaker Puan Maharani, as the running mate to Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).

Widodo is also believed to favor State Enterprise Minister and business tycoon Erick Thohir, 51, as the Pranowo’s vice-presidential partner, but it probably won’t be until early next year before he makes his position clearer. The deadline for candidate registration is September 7, 2023. 

A week after the Projo gathering, PDI-P secretary-general Hasto Kristiyanto revealed that Megawati had invited Widodo to meet her “at a special place” to discuss the party’s 2024presidential ticket.

“It can’t be done on the side of the road,” the normally tight-lipped aide was quoted as saying on the Republika.com website. “It should be done in a place of silence.” 

Kristiyanto made it clear the president’s role at the meeting would be as a PDI-P cadre, a reflection of Megawati’s consistent refusal to see Widodo as anything but a party functionary who she helped win election.

“Megawati is a leader who gave birth to many leaders, and the PDI-P cadreization process is carried out continuously,” Kristiyanto said. “Pak Jokowi, as a PDIP cadre, of course periodically meets with Ibu Mega.”

Still, however much she takes the high ground, Megawati faces a tough decision, similar to the one she was forced to make herself in stepping aside for the more popular Widodo in the lead up to the 2014 presidential election.

Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri (L) and her daughter Puan Maharani as they arrive for the inauguration of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo for a second term, at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Photo: AFP / Pool / Adek Berry

Maharani, who critics say lacks the attributes Indonesians look for in a leader, is polling at less than 2% while the charismatic Pranowo shares top billing with Prabowo despite not having the national profile the retired general enjoys.

After losing to Widodo in Indonesia’s past two presidential polls, Prabowo still has his eyes on the main prize, even if friends say he has found his calling in the defense portfolio, a job he was surprisingly handed after his most recent defeat in 2019.

For all of his enthusiasm, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has eaten into the money that may otherwise have been available to him to procure new top-line jet fighters, frigates and other hardware he could point to as major achievements.    

Analysts say it makes little sense for Megawati to continue pushing a Prabowo-Maharani ticket when Pranowo remains the obvious choice as a presidential rather than a vice-presidential candidate with the base of his – and PDI-P’s – support in the Java hinterland.

PDI-P is the only party with enough seats to nominate a candidate without requiring the support of other parties. It also leads in most polls by a wide margin over Gerindra, Golkar and the National Awakening Party (PKB), the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

Projo, a non-party mass organization whose membership is claimed to be in the tens of thousands, campaigned for Widodo to win an extension beyond 2024 after the Covid-19 pandemic left a two-year hole in his second term agenda and put at risk his US$33 billion plan to move the nation’s capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

But that idea was rejected in opinion surveys and the subsequent selection of a new General Elections Commission (KPU) has since raised public expectations that the simultaneous presidential and legislative elections will go ahead as scheduled on February 14, 2024.

Projo is now unanimous in its support for Pranowo, presumably in the belief that the 53-year-old former PDI-P legislator will be committed to preserving Widodo’s legacy, a condition the president might apply to his endorsement.

With the president powerless to influence events within PDI-P, Projo could play a major role in stitching together a coalition of parties if Pranowo quits the ruling PDI-P and strikes out on his own, something he has reportedly pledged not to do.

It is still unclear how united PDI-P is around Megawati, 75, who remains fixated on preserving the legacy of her father, founding president Sukarno. With many younger party members reportedly supporting Pranowo’s candidacy, cracks may soon begin to appear in the ranks.

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

Pranowo has revealed little about what his plans may be if he continues to be shunned by the PDI-P leadership but a Widodo endorsement would be a powerful weapon given his enduring popularity as a “common man” if not wily president. 

In what is widely seen as the first opening gambit, the Golkar, National Mandate (PAN) and United Development (PPP) parties recently formed an alliance with enough seats in the 575-seat House of Representatives (DPR) to meet the 20% threshold required to nominate a presidential candidate.

Together, third-ranked Golkar (85 seats), PAN (44) and PPP (19) comprise 23.6% of House representation but none have a leader with a realistic chance of competing in the 2024 race and most observers saw the move as an act of desperation.

Only Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto, the current economic coordinating minister, is seen as a possible vice presidential choice in any future ruling coalition. But even he is on increasingly shaky ground as his party struggles to stay relevant.

Recent political party polls show ex-president Suharto’s former ruling machine at below 10%, an indication that Golkar’s downward slide is likely to continue from 22.4% of the seats in the first democratic elections in 1999 to 14.4% in 2009 to 12.3% in 2019.

Former Suharto-era party secretary-general Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a reformist and one-time environment minister, describes Airlangga as a “housecat who has been brought up in a comfortable situation and is even scared of mice.”

“Golkar has evolved into an organization without any direction or ideas and only concerned with acquiring positions,” he told Asia Times. Those, he said, “revolve around a clique of rich people who don’t seem to have any idea what the country needs.”

Despite dropping its previous Sharia law platform to attract broader support, the Islamic-based PPP is in danger of falling below 4% of the nationwide vote in the coming elections, which would deprive it of parliamentary representation. 

An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan
An Indonesian voter casts her ballot at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Jefri Tarigan

PAN may be in trouble too with party and perennial troublemaker Amien Rais breaking away to form his own party. Rais, 78, is a former leader of the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest mass Muslim organization which PAN has always relied on for votes. 

In the end, all the strange new alliance may do is focus early attention on the elections, with analysts already speculating that 2024 could turn into a three-way race requiring two rounds of voting to determine the final outcome.

That wouldn’t be the first time. In the first direct election in 2004, the field was whittled down from five to Megawati and her former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won in a virtual landslide. Five years later, Yudhoyono again had an easy victory over the PDP-P matriarch after Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla dropped out in the first round.