The door is open, say Indonesian presidential hopefuls

Who will be lining up against Joko Widodo before candidate registration deadline on Aug. 10 is anyone's guess
The door is open, say Indonesian presidential hopefuls

President elect Joko Widodo (center) and defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (left) walk together for a meeting ahead of Widodo's official Oct. 20 inauguration in this Oct. 17, 2014 file photo. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

The door is wide open for a coalition aiming to unseat President Joko Widodo at next April's elections, according to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

SBY, as he's commonly known, made the statement after a two-hour meeting on the night of July 24 with Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Widodo in 2014, but seems keen on having another crack at the nation's top job.

They said they shared a vision about what the nation needed for the next five years, but stressed that they did not discuss a possible role as Subianto's running mate for Yudhoyono's son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono.

The former president is seen as keen to establish a dynasty, but if he pushes the former army general too hard, he could undo the other part of Subianto's coalition ranged against Widodo.

His Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) has usually worked together with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and more recently with the National Mandate Party (PAN).

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Both those parties are pushing their own figures for the vice-presidential slot, and too much pressure for the younger Yudhoyono to take on the role — potentially preparing him for a presidential move in his own right later on — could wreck the existing line-up.

And while the official line from the former president is accommodative, the message on the street is far more assertive. Portraits of Agus Harimurti adorn the streets of major cities with a one-word message: "Siap" — Ready — presumably for the vice-presidential office.

The proposed opposition coalition presents other hurdles. Both Gerindra and Yudhoyono's Democratic Party are nationalist secular parties, unlike the PKS and PAN.

PKS is Indonesia's version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and PAN increasingly adopts a Muslim-flavored line.

There may have been a message on the issue of ideology in Yudhoyono's comments to the media after the meeting with Subianto.

"We made a commitment and agreed to contribute and make efforts for peaceful, honest and fair elections in 2019, including the presidential one," he said.

"We are committed to avoid political movements on the basis of identity and SARA [ethnicity, religion, race or group affiliation]."

That suggests that the election is likely to be relatively free of the dirt that colored the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which the forces of hard-line Islam were ranged against incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian.

Religion didn't feature strongly in regional elections in June and is not likely to do so next April. After all, all of the likely candidates are Muslim.

Some continue to rant and rave. Amien Rais, a political scientist who was one of the main figures in the 1998 overthrow of late autocrat Suharto, continues to push PAN toward a "Mecca Coalition" of Muslim parties. But others are not listening, and it's not clear that his own party is keen to be too closely associated with the politics of identity.

Society as a whole has taken a step back to examine the passions that roiled the country as hard-liners insisted that only a Muslim should lead the country, or any part of it. The same conservative ideology remains dominant but is far less vocal than it was when Purnama was trounced and then sent to jail over blasphemy allegations.

Assuming Subianto can marshal his forces into an orderly union to confront Widodo, the incumbent is likely to come under fire on a range of issues.

Most prominent among them is the economy, with pressure continuing on the rupiah currency — down 6 percent against the dollar so far this year.

State energy company, Pertamina, has been forced to foot the bill for subsidized fuel, as Widodo refuses to allow prices to rise ahead of the election year.

Now the Minister for State-Owned Enterprises, Rini Soemarno, is saying the behemoth will have to shed assets. That will leave the president open to charges of mismanagement when the campaign begins.

He will also face accusations of selling the country off to China. While earlier concerns about a spike in Chinese workers appear to have faded, they can easily be ramped up again in a nation where sovereignty is a sensitive issue.

He can brag that he has achieved the long-sought goal of gaining control of the Grasberg copper and gold mine in Papua, with U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan announcing on July 12 that it had agreed to a deal that will see the government take a 51 percent stake.

Widodo will also be able to point to the major boost in infrastructure during his first term, with the trans-Java toll road, stretching nearly 1,000 km across the country's most populous island, expected to be completed at the end of 2019.

The president also has to decide on his own running mate. On July 23, he was reported to have reached agreement on a candidate with the leaders of the parties in his own coalition, but no public statement on the choice is expected until nominations near their close on Aug. 10.

A possible union with Yudhoyono's Democrats had been mooted, presumably with Agus Harimurti penciled in for the number two slot on the ticket, but that option now seems to have been ruled out.

Up until now, three parties in the Widodo camp — Golkar, the United Development Party and the National Awakening Party — have all been pushing for their contenders to be given the nod as running mate.

Agreement on a candidate removes one major headache for the incumbent.

Widodo can still win re-election without Yudhoyono's backing. The latest poll, conducted by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), gave the incumbent the backing of 55 percent of respondents who were asked to choose either him or a number of other possible contestants.

Subianto, who was chosen by a lowly 22.9 percent in the LIPI poll, still hasn't officially stated that he'll run in the April election. He's reported to have doubts about the wisdom of throwing away large sums of money in another unsuccessful campaign.

Much could still change before the battle lines are set on Aug. 10.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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