November 1, 2023
JAKARTA – The message that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was trying to convey during a rare luncheon between a sitting president and the three men competing to replace him was clear: that he will be a neutral party in the upcoming presidential race. Yet, people are becoming even less convinced that the President is in fact capable of being impartial.
While it is not unusual for incumbent leaders to claim neutrality during elections, Jokowi’s statement, which many voters will take with a grain of salt, was peculiar in that he was willing to go to great lengths to insist he is in no way attempting to tip the balance in favor of a certain presidential candidate.
The luncheon was typical of Jokowi’s theatrical politics. It was a carefully choreographed event that was meant to create the impression that the President does not have a favorite in the election, and that everything is fine despite the rising political temperature.
In the past, such an antic might have worked like a charm. But Jokowi should have known that he is no longer the obscure and mysterious politician that captivated the people with his “lunch diplomacy” and blusukan (impromptu visits) more than a decade ago.
That the question of the President’s neutrality is currently being raised is itself already alarming. It is even more alarming that the President felt that he needed to pull off one of his antics to quash any doubts about his impartiality.
It is hard to believe that Jokowi could be a neutral party in the race. His son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is the running mate of his defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, who now leads the polls. The President is said to have mobilized his apparatchiks to pave the way for his eldest son, the current mayor of Surakarta, to contest the election.
Gibran’s decision to run on the same ticket as Prabowo practically sets the First Family against the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the party that had served as their political vehicle for the last 12 years. It further strains his troubled relationship with PDI-P leader Megawati Soekarnoputri, who has chosen former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo as the party’s presidential candidate. It may even cost the party several cabinet posts or other strategic political posts.
Jokowi’s fresh conflict with his own party came after weeks of reports of his conflict with NasDem Party leader Surya Paloh, who has nominated former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan as its presidential candidate. Anies, with Paloh’s support, is running for president on the platform of “change”, portraying himself as the antithesis of Jokowi.
Soon after declaring Anies’ nomination, two NasDem ministers in the Cabinet were arrested on corruption charges. Their prosecution has sparked concerns that state coercive institutions are being weaponized to intimidate the opposition.
Anies and Ganjar have given Jokowi the benefit of the doubt and have taken his word at face value. “He is a good man,” Ganjar said. “God willing, he will support a good democratic system.” Anies also seems to believe that the President got his message: “We told Pak President that there are many people who look up to him, and that these people want him to stay neutral and ensure that all of the state apparatus will too.”
But we know that it is unrealistic to expect the President to be completely neutral in the presidential race, given that his own son will be on the ballot. That said, we are calling on the President to refrain from mobilizing the state apparatus to rig the election.
We have seen indications that the President is trying to further consolidate his power as the election approaches by placing his close allies in strategic posts, not only within the cabinet but also as regional heads across the country.
Regardless of whether the President has a horse in the race, the state apparatus must never play politics. That, and not some fancy luncheon, will convince the people that he is capable of being neutral.