House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani (L) and leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) Megawati Sukarnoputri are trying to keep the Sukarno family atop Indonesian politics. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

JAKARTA – The bad news keeps on coming for House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani, the daughter of ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, with poll after poll pouring cold water on her presidential aspirations in 2024.

As she languishes at the bottom of the opinion surveys, her rival for the party’s candidacy, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, appears to have finally wrested the lead away from Defense Minister and Great Indonesia Party (Gerindra) patron Prabowo Subianto.

To the frustration of Maharani’s supporters, Pranowo keeps getting stronger without lifting a finger to boost his popularity or showing any sign of disloyalty towards Megawati and the party he has actively represented since the mid-1990s.

The way things are shaping up, Megawati will soon face a case of déjà vu. In 2014, she was forced to make the belated decision to step aside for the wildly popular Joko Widodo, who went on to beat Prabowo in a race that was a lot tighter than it should have been.

On electability alone, the 53-year-old Pranowo is clearly the natural choice. But that ignores how the legacy of founding president Sukarno, Megawati’s charismatic father, overshadows PDI-P affairs 52 years after his death.

By many accounts, It was only a close friend who persuaded Megawati to forego her own bid for the presidency eight years ago. Today, she doesn’t appear to have the same counsel as she ponders who will take her place as head of the country’s largest party. 

Questions over Megawati’s health and the growing rivalry between Maharani, 49, and her half-brother, Prananda Prabowo, 52, both deputy party chairs, suggest that in the longer term the PDI-P leadership may be as important as the presidency.

The leader of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia on the sidelines of the 4th PDIP congress at the Inna Grand Bali Beach hotel on the resort island of Bali April 10, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu ???ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.? - RTR4WS5T
Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri could be losing her grip on power. Photo: Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

After staying neck-and-neck with Prabowo in the polls over the past three years, the latest Charta Politika gives Pranowo a commanding 31.3% to 24.4% lead over his chief rival, with Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan trailing on 20.6%.

Last month, two other respected pollsters, Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) and the Indonesia Survey Institute (LSI), had Pranowo ahead by a similar margin, despite not having Prabowo’s national profile. 

A recent Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) survey of young voters aged 17 to 39, Pranowo led with 33.3%, followed by Baswedan on 27.5% and the 70-year-old Prabowo trailing on 25.7%.

For most analysts, it is a solid indication that under-40 constituents, who make up about 55% of the 180 million-strong voting population, are looking for a new-generation leader to take the country forward. 

Maharani’s camp has formed an unusual “Colonel’s Council” to back her candidacy, largely comprising mid-level cadre. Pranowo’s supporters have responded with a “Corporal’s Council,” noting that his popularity rests with PDI-P’s mass base. 

Pranowo was pointedly not invited to a recent meeting of the PDI-P’s Central Java regional heads in Semarang, the Central Java provincial capital. But by continuing to ostracize a popular politician who does nothing to fight back risks a backlash.

Maharani is already campaigning across vote-rich Java, where presidential elections are always decided. But her poll numbers have only moved marginally from 1.5% to 2.4%, testimony to a colorless personality and inability to galvanize voters. 

Pranowo is different from Widodo, who doesn’t feel he owes PDI-P anything for his political success, first in winning the mayoralty in his hometown of Solo and then as Jakarta governor, which served as his springboard to the presidency.

In both cases, Widodo was helped by other parties and, in the 2012 gubernatorial race, by Prabowo himself, who had little inkling at the time he would be running against him in the 2014 presidential election.

Ganjar Pranowo comes from a humble background, just like popular premier Joko Widodo. Image: Facebook

Elected to his current post in 2013, Pranowo comes from an equally humble background as Widodo. But as an admirer of Sukarno and a member of PDI-P since 1996, he served two parliamentary terms between 2004 and 2013 before running for the governorship.

After failing in their efforts to extend Widodo’s term, the president’s lobbyists are now said to be working behind the scenes to match Pranowo with State Enterprise Minister Erick Thohir, who is perceived to have the money to fund a presidential campaign. 

But Megawati ultimately holds the key to how the political stars will align, given the fact that PDI-P is the only party that can nominate a candidate without the support of other parties. Coalition-building will begin in earnest after that.

Presidential and vice-presidential candidates must register between September 7-13, 2023, with a formal announcement on October 11 – the same day that parliamentary candidates will also be known. The official campaign period is set for October 14 to February 10, 2024.

For now, perhaps the clearest coalition is the budding opposition team of Baswedan and Democrat Party chairman Agus Harimurti, 44, eldest son of ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who was pulled out of the military to pursue a political career.

Backed by the Islamist Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), the Jakarta governor can rely on the right-wing Muslim vote centered in West Java, but he needs the Democrats and Surya Paloh’s National Democrat Party (Nasdem) to broaden his base.

The first party to endorse Widodo in 2014, Nasdem finally announced its decision to support the governor on October 2, just two weeks before he leaves office and well ahead of the schedule it had set itself only days before.

Nasdem was key to the opposition alliance meeting the threshold of 20% of the 575 seats in the House of Representatives required for it to nominate a presidential candidate. Together, the three parties have 25% of incumbent legislators.

Paloh, a wealthy media magnate, hasn’t always been happy with the way the fifth-ranked Nasdem has been treated in PDI-P’s seven-party ruling coalition, where it holds the agriculture, environment and forestry and communications portfolios.

But until now observers have questioned whether a party with center-left nationalist credentials can work with PKS, which sits on the other side of the political divide that has come to define more recent elections.

On October 1, in what was seen as an effort to make the engagement more palatable for Nasdem, Baswedan officially joined Permuda Pancasila, a national organization that supports the country’s pluralist state ideology.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) shakes hands with Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto after Jokowi was sworn in for a second term as president at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Widodo later made Prabowo his defense minister. Image: AFP / Pool / Achmad Ibrahim

While Megawati’s grip on PDI-P seems as strong as ever, choosing Maharani could spark a revolt in the ranks that would be difficult to contain, particularly if Widodo endorses Pranowo, as he seems likely to do.

Even a Pranowo-Maharani ticket would be a risky proposition with Prabowo, his background as a rebellious general long in the past, capable of pulling together a coalition of nationalist parties to pose a real challenge in his expected third bid for the presidency.

Only last week, the leader of one pro-Pronowo group said if he was overlooked for the presidential candidacy, it will switch allegiance to Prabowo, whom he described as a “tried and tested” figure – and one who has learned to control his often explosive temper.