Ruling Democrats in Indonesia endorse Prabowo


In a stunning surprise that highlights the shifting momentum in  Indonesia’s presidential election, the ruling party of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (‘SBY’) has endorsed the presidential campaign of former general Prabowo Subianto.Indonesia Flag

Though many members of the Partai Demokrat (PD, Democratic Party) were already sympathetic to Prabowo’s campaign, its leaders indicated that the party would take a wait-and-see approach to the election earlier in the spring, when polls showed that Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) would win the presidency by a wide margin.

Over the past month, the race has tightened as Prabowo (pictured above, left, with SBY, right) has waged a spirited campaign, high on economic nationalism and populism, and relentless in his attacks on Jokowi’s relative inexperience.

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RELATED: Will Prabowo Subianto become Indonesia’s next president? 

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The PD’s embrace is not so incredibly important from an organizational standpoint because the Democrats, founded by SBY in 2004, are still a relatively new force in Indonesian politics, and there’s no guarantee the party will even survive SBY’s retirement. Accordingly, the Democrats lacks the local grassroots structure of Jokowki’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan), which dates to the socialist government of Sukarno in the 1950s and Golkar (Partai Golongan Karya, Party of the Functional Groups), which dates to Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime that spanned from 1967 to 1998.

Nevertheless, it’s a crucial sign that Jakarta’s political elite believe that Prabowo has not only caught up with Jokowi, but is now the odds-on favorite to win the July 9 election, to the considerable dismay of many Indonesian investors and human rights activists.

In the April parliamentary elections, the Democrats fell to fourth place, behind the PDI-P, Golkar and Prabowo’s Gerindra (Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, the Great Indonesia Movement Party).

Left without a strong presidential contender of its own, the Democrats initially declared their neutrality after weeks of behind-the-scenes coalition-building that followed the legislative election. Yudhoyono, as the first directly elected president in Indonesia’s history, will remain officially neutral with respect to the election, even while his party lines up behind Prabowo.

But there were signs all along that Yudhoyono unofficially backed Prabowo, whose running mate, Hatta Rajasa, has close personal and political ties to Yudhoyono. Though Hatta is the leader of the Islamist Partai Amanat Nasional (PAN, National Mandate Party), he’s been a central figure in government for the past decade.  In a country where political marriages are common (Prabowo himself was once married to Suharto’s daughter), Hatta’s daughter is married to Yudhoyono’s youngest son. Hatta joined SBY’s first cabinet in 2004, and he served as coordinating minister for the economy from 2009 until last month, when he stepped down to run for the vice presidency.

Prabowo already has the support of Golkar and three of Indonesia’s four major Islamist parties, including Hatta’s National Mandate Party.

SBY’s government coalition currently includes the Democrats, as well as Golkar and all four Islamist parties. It would have been unthinkable to imagine that Prabowo, who left Golkar in 2008 and who has been a protectionist voice in Indonesia’s opposition, would largely re-assemble the current governing coalition to back his candidacy.

Jokowi, who selected former vice president Jusuf Kalla, a former Golkar leader, as his running mate, is sure to attract many Golkar supporters away from Prabowo, particularly in Kalla’s home base of Sulawesi. Kalla has aggressively challenged Prabowo’s controversial military record, demanding answers to allegations that Prabowo ordered the kidnapping and torture of nearly two dozen pro-democracy activists in 1998, as well as older accusations of human rights abuses in Indonesia’s long conflict in what is today Timor-Leste. In addition to the PDI-P, Jokowi also has the support of former Golkar presidential candidate Wiranto and the remaining Islamist party, the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB, National Awakening Party).

With nine days to go until the election, Kalla and Hatta met for the fourth debate among the four presidential and vice-presidential candidates, focusing on the development of human capital, education science and technology.

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