January 25, 2024
JAKARTA – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has come under fire for saying that holding a public office did not restrict him from campaigning for any election contenders amid growing concerns that he is putting his thumb on the scale in favor of his erstwhile rival and his son in the February election.
Jokowi insisted on Wednesday that a sitting president was free to back any presidential candidate and that he was entitled to campaign for the candidate of his choice in his free time, provided he made no use of government facilities while doing so.
“Yes, a president can join the campaign. Yes, a president can pick a side. All that is permitted as long as he does not use state facilities,” Jokowi told reporters, adding that presidents and ministers had the same “democratic right” as every citizen to support their preferred candidates.
He made the statement after a handover ceremony at Halim Perdanakusumah Air Base in East Jakarta for new Hercules military transport aircraft to the Air Force.
Gerindra Party presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s former rival in previous elections who is now running with the President’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, took part in the ceremony in his capacity as defense minister and stood beside the President during the media briefing.
Jokowi’s remark came amid a growing perception that the popular President is tacitly favoring frontrunner Prabowo-Gibran.
Activists and critics have repeatedly raised concerns over what they see as Jokowi’s attempts to cling to power and build a political dynasty, especially after the controversial Constitutional Court ruling that tweaked the eligibility criteria, allowing Gibran to run for VP.
Critics say Jokowi’s activities of late have been designed to shadow the campaign rallies of Prabowo’s rivals in a bid to shore up support for the defense minister, although the President has shrugged off the allegation.
Jokowi has also been deploying populist programs that analysts say support Prabowo’s presidential bid, ranging from El Niño cash aid for low-income households to the first pay rise for civil servants in five years.
When asked by journalists if he would make his political preference over who should be his successor public, Jokowi gave a noncommittal answer, saying with a chuckle: “Let me ask you, am I taking sides?”
Jokowi’s remark has drawn ire from Prabowo’s rival camps, which have accused Jokowi and allies in the government of mobilizing state apparatus, including military and police officers, to marshal support for the Prabowo-Gibran ticket.
The campaign team of presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo called on the President to maintain ethical principles and act as a statesman, with campaigner Chico Hakim saying that Jokowi actively campaigning for his son’s ticket “will certainly prompt stronger public perception about nepotism”.
Ganjar’s running mate Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD has been considering quitting the cabinet in protest against the potential misuse of power by other ministers who have been tacitly campaigning for certain candidates.
Presidential candidate Anies Baswedan’s camp questioned Jokowi’s consistency after the President reportedly pledged to remain neutral when he invited all three presidential candidates for lunch last October at the Palace.
“What we heard previously was that [the President will be] neutral – supporting, facilitating all sides. We will just leave it to the people to weigh and judge it for themselves,” Anies said on Wednesday.
Under the prevailing General Elections Law, sitting presidents, vice presidents and other state officials are allowed to engage in campaign activities, but are prohibited from using state facilities and are required to take leave when participating in ones.
The same law also prohibits “state officials, structural officials and functional officials in state positions, as well as village heads, from making decisions and/or taking actions that benefit or harm one of the election [candidates] during the campaign period.”
Jokowi’s stance has also elicited strong reactions from civil society groups and election observers, who condemned his Wednesday remark as “unethical and inappropriate”. They urged him to retract his statement over fears that it could “impede democratic principles” in the coming election.
“The President’s statement is very shallow and will potentially be used as a justification for him, ministers and state officials under his command to actively campaign and take sides in the 2024 general election,” Khoirunissa Agustyati, director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), said in a written statement.
This, Khoirunissa added, could also lead to the organizing of the election being marred with electoral fraud.
Jokowi’s insistence that a president could take sides in the election could set “a bad precedent” for the country’s young democracy, said analyst Firman Noor of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).
“A president should be able to demonstrate statesmanship, siding with all elements of the nation and giving a sense of equality among candidates in democratic contestation,” Firman said.
Rather than following in the footsteps of the country’s past leaders who have been maintaining their statesmanship in the final year of their term, Firman said Jokowi has been disregarding ethics and had gone too far intervening in the election.