January 31, 2024
JAKARTA – As voting day draws nearer, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s activities continue to rankle his critics as well as governance experts, following his contentious statement insisting that he had a political right to campaign for a candidate of his choosing.
Some have accused him of leveraging his authority to tip the balance in favor of his preferred successor, despite the President’s claims that he has no plans to join any campaigns and his acknowledgement that it would be difficult to distinguish between presidential duties and political support.
The incumbent leader, barred from running for a third term in office, has been returning periodically to Central Java in recent weeks for what his office describes as working visits but which analysts say is “open campaigning” in support of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who is running with Jokowi’s eldest son, vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka.
“What Jokowi has been doing is no longer a covert campaign. The President has openly and actively built a support system, which he is part of, to support Prabowo and Gibran,” Feri Amsari, a constitutional law expert from Andalas University, told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
Central Java is a key battleground province that has helped Jokowi win past elections and is a stronghold of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the National Awakening Party (PKB), neither of which is supporting Prabowo.
On Monday, the President was seen eating bakso (meatball soup) with Defense Minister Prabowo after the launch of a new facility for the Military Academy in Central Java’s Magelang city.
A day prior, Jokowi was seen having breakfast with Democratic Party chairman Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono in Yogyakarta, ahead of a planned rally nearby for one of Prabowo’s rivals for the presidency, Ganjar Pranowo. The Democrats are backing Prabowo’s bid as part of a big-tent coalition.
Later that Sunday, the President played soccer in heavy rain in an outdoor field in Sleman, Yogyakarta, together with his younger son Kaesang Pangarep, who leads the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), another member of the ten-way alliance backing Prabowo. A self-styled platform for millennials, the PSI has since shifted its focus to become a guardian of “Jokowism”.
Jokowi has also been distributing staple foods such as rice and cooking oil to locals as part of the state social assistance program, which was extended until June, beyond its initial November 2023 deadline. He also mobilized the El Niño direct cash assistance program despite the commencement of the rainy season.
The President was reported to the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) after First Lady Iriana sparked controversy for performing a two-finger salute – widely used to represent the Prabowo-Gibran ticket’s number on the upcoming ballot – as she stepped out of a presidential car onto a busy street in Central Java on Jan. 23.
Burden of proof
The President’s activities in Central Java and Yogyakarta, less than two weeks before the end of the official campaign period, were aimed at “optimizing the political machinery” in service of the Prabowo-Gibran ticket, said Ahmad Khoirul Umam, a political science lecturer at Jakarta’s Paramadina University.
Despite being ahead of their rivals, Prabowo and Gibran have seen their electability rating stagnate at around 40 percent, recent opinion surveys have shown.
The prospect of the February poll advancing into a run-off has prompted Jokowi to “panic”, Umam said, while support for him within the PDI-P, to which he still belongs, has also dwindled.
“Jokowi’s loyal supporters in the PDI-P voter base seem to be drained, while supporters of Prabowo who voted for him in the 2014 and 2019 elections had shifted to [rival candidate] Anies Baswedan,” Umam told the Post.
Election observers, civil society groups and rival camps have slammed the President for sending mixed messages about what role he would play in the election. He said in September that he would “meddle” in the election to ensure his successor would continue his programs, while he called on the state apparatus in November to remain neutral.
He further incensed his critics last week when he asserted that a sitting president had the legal right to take sides and campaign for the candidate of his or her choosing, provided no state facilities were being used. Critics hit back with demands for Jokowi to take a leave of absence, as stipulated in the 2017 General Elections Law.
However, any veiled campaigning would be difficult to prove, Bawaslu head Rahmat Bagja acknowledged recently.
“From a legal standpoint, [covert campaigns] are difficult to discern,” Rahmat said in Jakarta on Monday. “But we will definitely stand watch if the President does anything that is prohibited, such as making use of government facilities.”
While Jokowi declined to comment when asked whether he would join any campaigns, the Presidential Palace said on Monday it was not expecting Jokowi to take a leave of absence and that he had no plans to campaign for any presidential candidate.
Addressing the backlash, a senior Palace aide defended Jokowi last week, saying meddling was common practice even among former presidents Megawati Soekarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
But constitutional experts and election observers said the assertion was “misleading” and that the President and his office had “cherry-picked” laws to justify his actions and intentions.
“What is happening now is very different from the previous elections. In the past, we have had incumbents seeking reelection. Now we have a president who is not allowed to seek reelection taking the side of his son in the race,” Fadli Ramadhanil, a researcher at the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), told the Post on Tuesday.
The President has gone too far in meddling, said constitutional law expert Herlambang Wiratraman of the Institute for Economic and Social Research, Education and Information (LP3ES).
He insisted that Jokowi’s maneuvers had violated “not only the law but the Constitution”, and expressed doubt about the fairness of the elections after the President had mobilized “both political and constitutional machinery” to secure his son’s vice presidential bid.
Gibran’s bid was made possible by the help of former Constitutional Court chief justice Anwar Usman, who was instrumental in a controversial decision to tweak candidate age limits so that the 36-year-old Gibran could run.