Javanese political theatre

It is hard to unsee brewing tensions between the two political figures as they compete to become the kingmaker who will shape the 2024 race.


Food for thought: President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) receives a slice of rice cone from Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri during the opening of the party’s national executive meeting in Jakarta, on June 21, 2022. (Courtesy of/Press Bureau of Presidential Secretariat)

June 13, 2023

JAKARTA – No doubt, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a Javanese leader par excellence. He can be ruthless in his power play, but he is never a man of confrontation and hardly expresses his enmity toward his enemies.

Such a gesture is the norm in Javanese political culture. It is not unusual for Javanese leaders to speak in allusion, conveying their thoughts in a smutty double entendre. It is therefore difficult to make sense of the nature of the silent conflict between President Jokowi and his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) matron, Megawati Soekarnoputri.

The two are rumored to be at loggerheads over the question of succession when Jokowi ends his term in October 2024. For Megawati, the answer is clear: She has granted the nomination to Central Java Ganjar Pranowo. As a PDI-P member, Jokowi should toe the party line.

But politics is not always linear. It may be true that Jokowi has never questioned Megawati’s call. He even attended the press conference announcing Ganjar’s nomination in a show of support for the party’s decision. The President, however, has also given signals that he is not entirely happy with the choice.

According to people close to Jokowi, including the elite members of his militant “volunteer” groups, the President was offended that he was not involved in the whole process of Ganjar’s candidacy. He was even only notified of the event at the last minute.

But the biggest problem with Megawati’s surprise decision is that it practically complicates Jokowi’s efforts to create a “big tent” alliance to defeat the candidate that he believes would undo his legacy, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan.

Jokowi is said to have preferred that his former rival and now defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, be granted the presidential nomination with Ganjar as his running mate, thus paving the way for a unified alliance in the upcoming elections. It is unlikely, however, that the PDI-P, the nation’s largest ruling party, would even consider the scenario.

It is thus hard to unsee the brewing tensions between the two political figures as they compete to become the real kingmaker who will shape the 2024 race.

Both leaders have dismissed notions that their relations are currently strained, with Megawati saying that she has no power to put pressure on Jokowi. But in clarifying the rumor, the PDI-P matriarch sounded more like patronizing than acknowledging Jokowi’s political prowess. “How can I put pressure [on Jokowi]? He, Pak Jokowi, could go berserk. You can see his troops are plenty. Look, I don’t have many troops,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the party’s working meeting last week.

To show his support for Ganjar and his loyalty to Megawati, Jokowi extolled the party’s presidential nominee, calling him “brave”. “For a future leader like Pak Ganjar Pranowo, the number one quality is that he has guts. Bravery is number one, and I can see that Pak Ganjar has that quality,” Jokowi said.

It is his choice of words that has sparked speculations if Jokowi actually meant it. Jokowi’s followers who support Prabowo have often questioned Ganjar’s ability to stand up to Megawati, as Jokowi did throughout his presidency. On social media, Prabowo’s supporters have attacked Ganjar as “party official” and “puppet president”.

At this point, it is all conjecture. The PDI-P has yet to decide on Ganjar’s running mate, with party executive Puan Maharani naming practically all eligible figures, from Golkar Party chairman Airlangga Hartarto to Democratic Party boss Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, as potential candidates. In short, it could be anyone.

Regardless, we cannot put aside the notion that the power struggle between Jokowi and Megawati has further complicated the hunt for his successor. While elite dynamics have always been part of politics, we cannot afford to let elite conflicts hamper the democratic process of finding the next national leader.

Certainly, voters need to know who will be on the ballots soon. They need more time to weigh on the candidates and make an informed decision come election day.

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