If you expect drama and suspense in the 2019 presidential election, as we had seen, for better or worse, in 2014, you would likely be disappointed.
If it were a movie, the upcoming election would likely turn out to be a badly produced sequel of our last one with the same characters. And the plot would be much more predictable: it will end with Joko “Jokowi” Widodo getting a second term.
Most political parties have embraced this defeatist, yet realistic, view. That is why more than half of the parties participating in the next legislative election have already placed their bets on Jokowi, who clearly has the best odds, while the rest are perhaps pondering whether challenging the incumbent is worth the fight.
So the 2019 election is likely to be dull.
That is because for most political parties, including the President’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the 2019 election is merely a prelude to the real political battle of 2024, when Jokowi is barred from running again and the playing field is level for every contender.
Their defeatist attitude is perfectly understandable. Here’s why.
The Constitutional Court has ruled that the next presidential and legislative elections should be held concurrently, while the House of Representatives has decided that the controversial presidential election threshold (that a party must control 20 percent of House seats or secure 25 percent of the popular vote to field a candidate) will remain intact.
This means the General Election Commission will refer to the result of the 2014 legislative election to decide whether a party or an alliance of parties could nominate a candidate. That is boon for Jokowi, because it means the political setting for 2019 is more or less the same as the previous election, while the former Surakarta mayor has become stronger and is now way more prepared.
The most probable scenario for 2019 is that Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto, backed by the House’s three largest parties, will have a rematch next year. If the race was too close to call in 2014, the next battle for the two political leaders is by far more predictable.
The latest election surveys have shown that Jokowi’s electability hovers around 47 to 48 percent. Analysts say the numbers are not good enough, and Jokowi could lose the election, but his potential rivals are doing even worse.
It is hard to fathom why the Gerindra Party insists on nominating Prabowo again, and even scoff at suggestions that the time is up for its candidate, who has fought for election since 2004. Prabowo’s electability is still below that of Jokowi, and most of the parties that backed him in 2014 have abandoned him.
If he could not beat Jokowi in 2014 when the latter was practically a stranger in national politics and extremely vulnerable to smear campaigns, online and offline, what could possibly make him think he could beat Jokowi in 2019?
Jokowi has done a lot to ensure his re-election. While the economy remains sluggish, and his infrastructure drive is marred by deadly accidents, Jokowi has successfully portrayed himself as a working president.
He has also worked really hard to win support from Islamic groups and has drummed up a type of hyper nationalism to help him fend off the Islamists’ political attacks targeting his credentials as a Muslim leader.
But his best defense is perhaps his success in ensuring that fake news and hoaxes can no longer dent his popularity. Not only has Jokowi made the campaign against fake news a national sport, he has also set up the legal and technological infrastructure to combat hoaxes and their spreaders.
National Police chief Tito Karnavian, widely seen as Jokowi’s trusted ally, has been aggressive in cracking down on online hate mongers. The President has also set up a national cyber agency that would have access to the powerful “censor machine” that could swiftly detect and block any negative content on the web.
There is no need for the President to abuse his power to win the race (though his rivals would certainly assume he already has). He only needs to let the police and around 50 personnel behind the “censor machine” work professionally to cripple his rivals’ ability to attack him online.
With Jokowi’s standing stronger than ever, unsurprisingly all political parties, except for Gerindra, have formally or casually offered their best candidates to be Jokowi’s vice-presidential candidate, as it is broadly seen as the most strategic position for potential presidential contenders in 2024.
This logic explains National Awakening Party chairman Muhaimin Iskandar’s cringe-worthy campaign as a vice-presidential candidate, which was launched months ago, even though, until now, it remains unclear who his presidential candidate is. For Muhaimin, the goal is not winning 2019, but setting the stage for 2024.
That is also why an alliance between Jokowi and the Democratic Party is just hard to realize due to conflicting interests. Democratic Party chairman Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wants his son, Agus Yudhoyono, to be Jokowi’s running mate.
Megawati Soekarnoputri, Yudhoyono’s political nemesis and Jokowi’s matriarch in PDI-P, will not easily give that position to Agus when her daughter, Puan Maharani, and close ally, Budi Gunawan, could be candidates.
The idea of whoever runs with Jokowi could be president in 2024 is so widely held among politicians that even Jokowi has reportedly insisted on running with Vice President Jusuf Kalla (now 76 years old) again to ensure no potential presidential contender has the upper hand in 2024.
Some politicians, including House speaker Bambang Soesatyo, have gone as far as toying with the controversial idea of having Jokowi as the sole candidate for 2019, offering a politically unthinkable proposal: pairing Jokowi and Prabowo, a scenario that Gerindra has flatly rejected.
Yudhoyono, meanwhile, has floated the idea of fielding Agus as an alternative presidential candidate. But the party is aware that Agus has little chance of winning the election. Thus, its possible main goals would be to boost the party’s electoral gain and, of course, give Agus more exposure before 2024.
So far, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan is arguably the strongest candidate to challenge Jokowi. But who will support Anies? He is a non-partisan, freelance politician. And would Anies take the risk to challenge Jokowi now, and engage in a sectarian game of who is the most Muslim candidate with Jokowi?
If I were Anies, I would rather take on Agus in 2024.
(This article was written by Ary Hermawan and originally appeared in The Jakarta Post)