Four key points to watch as Indonesia elects a new parliament

Indonesia Election

When Indonesians vote on April 9, it will be the last time that Indonesians elect a parliament prior to electing a president. In  2019, Indonesians will vote on a parliament and a president simultaneously.Indonesia Flag

That gap, for the past decade, has made the parliamentary election the first stage in the process of electing a president. Under Indonesia election law, a party must win 20% of the seats in Indonesia’s Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, People’s Representative Council) or 25% of the national vote to nominate a presidential candidate — otherwise, it must ally with another party (or parties) until their cumulative support reaches the 20/25% hurdle.

That means that the parliamentary election has traditionally prompted the horse-trading necessary to build alliances that precede the presidential race. Even in 2009, when Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won an easy reelection, his party, the Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party), won just 20.85% of the national vote and 148 seats in the 560-member DPR, barely squeaking past the hurdle with just over 26% of the chamber’s seats.

Indonesians will also elect the Dewan Perwakilan Daerah (DPD, the Regional Representative Council), a second legislative body formed in 2004 with relatively more limited powers than the DPR. Both bodies have fixed five-year terms.

Members of the DPR are elected by proportional representation from multi-member districts that have between 3 and 10 representatives. Nationally, a party must win at least 3.5% of the vote to enter the DPR.

Though Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) is the wide frontrunner to become Indonesia’s next president in the July 9 election, however, the elections are still an important step in determining the nature of Indonesia’s next government.

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RELATED: Who is Joko Widodo?

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Generally speaking, though the lines blur somewhat, you can separate Indonesia’s major parties into three categories — Islamist parties (most of which are relatively mild by the standards of Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa), nationalist parties and moderate, secular parties guided by the somewhat vague principles of pancasila (five principles set forth by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence leader: Indonesian nationalism, humanism, democracy, social justice, and monotheism).

Currently, four parties in particular are expected to win wide support in the 2014 elections and field presidential candidates later this summer:

  • The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan), originally the party of Sukarno, and now the party of his daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and  Jokowi, which will be its 2014 presidential candidate. To the extent it has any ideology, it leans toward more statist economic policy. It won the first democratic parliamentary elections in Indonesia’s history in 1999, and governed the country through 2004 (and from 2001 to 2004, Megawati herself served as president). The PDI-P is currently the largest opposition party in the DPR with 94 seats.
  • Golkar (Partai Golongan Karya, Party of the Functional Groups), another pancasila party that governed during the rule of Suharto, who took power militarily in 1967 and was toppled only in 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian currency crisis. To the extent Golkar has any ideology, it leans toward more liberal economic policy. Though it emerged as the largest parliamentary party in 2004, it joined forces behind Yudhoyono in that year’s presidential contest. Golkar today is the second-largest party in the DPR with 106 seats, and it’s been part of Yudhoyono’s governing coalition for the past decade. Its leader Aburizal Bakrie will be its 2014 presidential candidate, though the Lapindo mud flow of 2006 continues to limit his popularity — the disaster displaced 25,000 Indonesians. One of Aburizal’s companies was engaged in gas exploration at the site, though the 6.3 magnitude Yogyakarta earthquake two days earlier is also believed to have played a role.
  • The Democratic Party, formed in 2001 as a pancasila-based democratic alternative to the PDI-P and Golkar, though it’s become essentially a personal vehicle for Yudhoyono’s political ambitions. Today, it’s the largest party in the DPR (with 148 seats), though it hasn’t formally determined its presidential candidate.
  • Gerindra (Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, the Great Indonesia Movement Party) is a rising nationalist force in Indonesian politics, and it seems set to win wide support under its leader Prabowo Subianto, who formed the party in 2008 after leaving Golkar. It currently holds just 26 seats in the DPR. Though the party teamed up with the PDI-P in the last election — Megawati chose  Prabowo as her 2009 running mate. In Jakarta, too, Jokowi joined forces with Gerindra, and the Jakarta’s deputy governor is  Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a rising Gerindra official.

Five additional parties also hold seats in the DPR, including four Islamist parties with a total of 169 seats (all of which supported Yudhoyono’s 2009 reelection bid and all of which are part of Yudhoyono’s governing coalition).**

The fifth party, Hanura (Partai Hati Nurani Rakyat, People’s Conscience Party), is the party of Wiranto. A former leader of the Indonesian armed forces in the late 1990s, he retains a small (but strong) following. He’s a controversial figure internationally, due to accusations of human rights abuses committed under his command in East Timor, not unlike Prabowo. Wiranto was an early leader of the post-Suharto Golkar, and he placed third in the 2004 presidential election behind Megawati and Yudhoyono. He left the party in 2006 to form a new vehicle for the 2009 presidential election, though he ultimately became the running mate of Golkar’s candidate Jusuf Kalla (previously Yudhoyono’s vice president), though the Golkar-Hanura ticket finished far behind in third place. Wiranto hopes to run in 2014 for president as well. 

So where does that leave matters for the April 9 election? Here are four points that help sort through Indonesia’s messy multi-party politics.

1. The PDI-P’s timing to announce that Joko Widodo would be its presidential candidate was perfect.

Before the election, the PDI-P led polls, largely on the anticipation that Jokowi would become its presidential candidate and on disappointment with Yudhoyono’s decade-long record in office. But there was always some uncertainty about Jokowi’s candidacy — Megawati was the PDI-P presidential candidate in 1999, 2004 and 2009 and, having served a truncated three-year presidential term, undoubtedly harbored hopes of winning it back in 2014. No one knew whether the PDI-P would formally back Jokowi, or even whether it would do so before the parliamentary elections.

By announcing her support (and, accordingly, the PDI-P’s support) for Jokowi last week, Megawati guaranteed the greatest possible benefit for the PDI-P in next week’s election. It gets the benefit of Jokowi’s candidacy at the point of greatest impact. The PDI-P harvests all the excitement that comes with the announcement of Jokowi’s formal candidacy, but the announcement comes so close to the elections that Jokowi can remain an undefined vessel — until he outlines his national agenda, he still embodies all things to all Indonesians.

The proof comes in a recent Morgan poll, which shows that the PDI-P’s parliamentary vote jumped from 27% before the Jokowi announcement to 37%. The other three major parties each have between 10% and 17%.

2. The era of unwieldy coalition government in Indonesia may be over if the PDI-P wins big.

If Jokowi-mania does fuel a huge victory in the parliamentary election, it will give the PDI-P (and presumably, Jokowi, as Indonesia’s next president) the kind of majority that has eluded Yudhoyono. Even in 2009, the Democrats struggled to win barely over 20% of the vote; in 2004, when Yudhoyono first came to power, his party won just 7.5%.

Yudhoyono has, therefore, governed through an unwieldy coalition with Golkar and the four major Islamist parties, a configuration that has often limited his ability to enact major reforms. Between 2004 and 2009, Golkar represented the largest party in the DPR, which awkwardly made Kalla, its leader at the time and Indonesia’s vice president, almost as powerful as Yudhoyono — and more powerful with respect to moving legislation. More recently, Golkar has sometimes joined forces with Gerindra and the PDI-P to stymie Yudhoyono. 

Though no one expects the PDI-P to win 50% of the seats in the DPR, it will come much closer to a working majority than the Democrats did, and any governing coalition will be much less unwieldy. That should give Jokowi the ability to be a much more powerful president than Yudhoyono ever was, which makes it all the more imperative to know what Jokowi would like to accomplish as president.

Another factor worth watching is whether Hanura or the four Islamist parties will pass the 3.5% hurdle to win seats in the DPR — all of them are hovering within the margin of error in several polls. With fewer parties in the DPR, the PDI-P’s advantage will result in a larger bloc of seats. 

3. Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party has made strategic errors that could lead to its extinction and damage Yudhoyono’s legacy.

By not naming a presidential candidate before the elections, the Democrats risk falling far behind — the Morgan poll gives them just 10% support, behind the PDI-P, Golkar and Gerindra.

The Democratic Party served an important role in the last decade as a secular democratic party unassociated with neither Sukarno nor Suharto. But it hasn’t assumed much of an identity beyond serving as a vehicle for Yudhoyono. By becoming essentially a personality-driven party, it’s facing potential extinction when Yudhoyono is no longer around.

Dahlan Iskan, an Indonesian businessman who ran the country’s state-owned electricity company (PLN) from 2009 to 2011, and who now serves as Yudhoyono’s minister for state-owned enterprises, could have been a credible candidate. He might have maximized the  party’s potential vote in what was always going to be a difficult election cycle. Instead, the Democrats seem likely to fall back to fourth place, with no clear path to resurgence and no standing after April 9 to launch a presidential campaign. It’s easy to believe that 2014 will mark its gradual decline.

4. Jokowi’s ascent could lead to the astonishing alliance of the two parties founded by Sukarno and Suharto.

The PDI-P will almost certainly win enough support on April 9 to nominate Jokowi as its presidential candidate without needing to ally with another party.

But that doesn’t mean Jokowi won’t look for a partner, to maximize the parliamentary coalition he’ll need to form a majority.

A PDI-P/Democrat alliance makes the most sense. Yudhoyono rose to prominence for his performance as Megawati’s security minister after the 2002 Bali terrorist attacks. But if the Democrats don’t win enough seats in the DPR to secure a strong majority for Jokowi, it doesn’t make incredible strategic sense for PDI-P.

The PDI-P has in the past joined forces with Gerindra, which served as Megawati’s junior partner in 2009 as well as Jokowi’s junior  partner today in Jakarta. But Prabowo sees 2014 as his best chance of winning the presidency, and he’s currently Jokowi’s leading opponent. If Jokowi implodes between now and July 9, Prabowo stands to gain the most.

That leaves Golkar, by process of elimination and, together, the two parties might be expected to pursue a liberal, moderately reformist government. But it would be a historic alliance of symbolic importance for Indonesia — the parties of the two great 20th century leaders, Sukarno and Suharto.

But the matter of the two leaders’ 20th century legacies remains very much part of Indonesia’s 21st century democratic conversation. Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati, is still the most powerful figure in the PDI-P, even if she won’t be its presidential candidate, and she may veto joining forces with Golkar. Suharto’s daughter, Siti Hediati Suharto, known as ‘Titiek,’ is running for a parliamentary seat this year in Yogyakarta, and Golkar’s candidates aren’t shy about campaigning on the basis of nostalgia about the Suharto era.

** In case you’re interested, the four Islamist parties are as follows:

  • Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS, Prosperous Justice Party): 57 seats. A mildly Islamist party, its former leader Hidayat Nur Wahid served as speaker of the DPR between 2004 and 2009. One of the more vocal opponents of corruption (despite its own recent links to corruption), it supported Muslim leader Amien Rais in the 2004 presidential election.
  • Partai Amanat Nasional (PAN, National Mandate Party): 46 seats. Another moderate Islamist party founded by Rais in 1998 as a vehicle to advocate to hold Suharto more accountable. Rais finished in fourth place in the 2004 presidential election.
  • Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP, United Development Party): 38 seats. The oldest major Islamist party, founded in 1973 in opposition to Suharto, it was one of three parties (including the governing Golkar) permitted to contest elections in the Suharto ‘New Order’ era. Though it initially considered supporting Megawati in 2004, its leader Hamzah Haz ran when Megawati didn’t choose him as her running mate — he finished in fifth place.
  • Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB, National Awakening Party): 28 seats. This party is closely aligned with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Sunni Islam group founded in 1926 that has straddled the line between religious organization and political party (not unlike the Arab world’s Muslim Brotherhood). Though the NU was forced to merge with the PPP in the Suharto era, its leader Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur) founded the PKB in 1998 after Suharto’s fall. Wahid ultimately served as Indonesia’s president from 1999 to 2001, though he was impeached by secular political elites before his term ended.

Photo credit to AP/Trisnadi. A PDI-P supporter cheers on his party at a campaign rally. 

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