Hard Choices in Indonesia's Presidential Race

By Made Supriatma, Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

The jostling for Indonesia's 2024 presidential election has begun, putting a tough choice in front of the biggest political party in parliament, writes Made Supriatama.

The contest for the 2024 Indonesian presidential election (PE) has taken more shape with the Nasdem (National Democrat) Party’s naming of former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan as its preferred candidate. The leader of Nasdem, tycoon Surya Paloh, announced his party’s endorsement of Anies, whose term as Jakarta governor ended on 16 October. Anies is the first non-party candidate supported by a major political party for the 2024 race’s top seat.

Anies’ candidacy has created a dilemma for PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) whether to nominate Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java, or Puan Maharani, speaker of Parliament (DPR) and PDI-P Chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri’s daughter. The crux of the choice lies in Ganjar’s high electability, with him coming in just a few percentage points lower than Anies when younger voters are polled, while Puan has the family legacy but not the pulling power for votes.

Indonesia’s election rules require that only parties which won at least 20 per cent of the total DPR seats or 25 per cent of votes in the previous election can nominate presidential candidates. Only PDI-P, with 22 per cent of DPR seats, meets this requirement. Nasdem, which has only about 10 per cent of DPR seats, must form a coalition with other parties to formally nominate Anies. It is speculated that Nasdem might form a coalition with two small parties, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS, with 8.7 per cent of DPR seats) and the Democratic Party (PD, with 9.39 per cent of DPR seats), but these two parties have yet to declare their support for Anies.

Prabowo Subianto, now a third-time presidential contender, is the founder and chairman of the Gerindra Party (Gerakan Indonesia Raya), which controls 13.57 per cent of DPR seats. Soon after Prabowo declared his candidacy, the traditionalist Muslim-based National Awakening Party (PKB) announced a coalition with Gerindra. With PKB’s 10 per cent of DPR seats, this coalition is eligible to nominate a presidential candidate.

Even now, the battle for the presidential election is still volatile. However, polling in the past several months has consistently shown that voters are drawn to Prabowo, who was perhaps the most well-known candidate given his long political career and links to the Suharto clan, with Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo now gaining on and even surpassing Prabowo in popularity surveys.

Will the PDI-P elite bow to Ganjar’s electability and not nominate Puan?

While Anies and Prabowo already have support from political parties, Ganjar Pranowo’s fate is still hanging in the balance. The same question that plagued PDI-P a year ago basically has not been answered by the party leadership. Various polls show that Ganjar’s electability has improved; in some surveys, he is the most popular candidate. In an SMRC poll in August 2022, Ganjar’s electability was 25.5 per cent for those surveyed, up from 8.8 per cent in March 2021. Meanwhile, in the latest CSIS poll, Ganjar’s electability was at 25.9 per cent, compared to Prabowo’s 19.2 per cent and Anies’ 18.1 per cent. Interestingly, in the CSIS poll, when asked to choose between just Anies and Ganjar, 47.8 per cent of respondents stated that Anies was more electable than Ganjar, while 43.9 per cent said Ganjar was more electable than Anies.

The absence of support from PDI-P for Ganjar, an ordinary PDI-P cadre, stems from the fact that Puan Maharani is the symbolic continuation of the Sukarno legacy and heir apparent to Megawati Sukarnoputri. But Puan’s electability remains in the low single digits in just about every survey. The net result is that Ganjar’s candidacy is stymied: he cannot reach out to other political parties lest this would anger the PDI-P elite. To date, the only political party that has publicly endorsed Ganjar is the tiny Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), that currently has no DPR seat. PDI-P criticised this ‘nomination’ as “disrespectful” because it was done without PDI-P’s permission. PDI-P Secretary General Hasto Kristiyanto accused PSI of doing an “electoral dance” by hoping to hang onto Ganjar’s coat-tails if he succeeded in securing a presidential nomination.

Ganjar has his back up against the wall. He cannot leave the PDI-P and reach out to other significant parties such as Golkar and PAN, which hold 14.78 per cent and 7.65 per cent of parliamentary seats, respectively. Ganjar cannot rely on Golkar and PAN because Golkar’s own preferred candidate, chairman Airlangga Hartarto, has low electability. If Golkar and PAN were to engage in blatant transactional politics with Ganjar, there is no guarantee that their grassroots would abide by the deal done by the party elites.

Given all this, Ganjar is highly dependent on the mercy of Megawati Sukarnoputri. On her part, Megawati would surely calculate that denying a presidential bid by Ganjar, whose popularity is undisputed, would damage PDI-P too. If PDI-P’s efforts to nominate Puan, the most likely successor to be the party’s next chairwoman, are unsuccessful, the party will inevitably have to support Ganjar.

Arguably, Puan is near the peak of her political career. She has been a member of parliament, a minister, and is now the Speaker of the Parliament. Puan’s performance as the DPR speaker has been more than acceptable: the Parliament under her leadership is one of the most productive Indonesia has seen. Since being sworn in in April 2019 till now, this parliament has passed 43 laws, including the Job Creation (Omnibus) Law.

The next logical step for Puan is to aim for the presidency or vice presidency. Yet her low polling numbers make her a weak proposition for the former, even if she could be a suitable vice-presidential running-mate for a more popular candidate. Ironically, due to the way Indonesia’s elections are structured, Puan and Ganjar are not ideal running-mates. The chances of PDI-P securing outright victory in PE 2024 would be higher if a strong PDI-P nominee ran with a strong contender from a different party, to secure a wider swathe of the national vote.

Also, a Ganjar-Puan team for PE 2024 would be strange given their differing statuses in the party hierarchy. Megawati once told President Joko Widodo that Ganjar was a “party official”. It would be uncomfortable if this ‘party official’ were president and his new party chairwoman his vice-president.

This situation has put PDI-P in a conundrum. If the party decides not to nominate Ganjar, but pairs Puan with Prabowo or Anies as their vice-presidential running-mate instead, that could be a political disaster for PDI-P. The 2014 and 2019 elections show that having a presidential candidate significantly boosts a party’s overall vote-share in the general elections. The PDI-P stands to lose many seats in the national and regional legislatures if it miscalculates this step.

Will the PDI-P elite bow to Ganjar’s electability and not nominate Puan? Rationally, this seems to be the step that must be taken. The question then, what is left for Puan?

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on 20th October 2022.

Image Credit: Ganjar Pranowo visits areas affected by floods at Central Java on 25 May 2022. (Photo: Ganjar Pranowo / Facebook)