May 30, 2023
JAKARTA – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a card-carrying member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and he has been consistently described by the party’s establishment as “a party official” assigned to lead the nation.
It is wrong, however, to suggest that Jokowi is nothing but a tool of his own party, devoid of any agency as the most powerful man in the country. At least in the last seven years of his presidency, Jokowi has managed to consolidate power not only within the PDI-P, but also within the ruling coalition that has propped up his administration.
In reality, Jokowi does not belong to the PDI-P alone. To lead with ease, he is required to work and negotiate with the six other political factions in the House of Representatives that support his government, five of which, like the PDI-P, gave him the ticket to contest the last presidential election.
Moreover, since 2004, an Indonesian president has not in fact been elected by political parties, but by the people through a direct poll. Jokowi won the popular vote, making him technically an “official of the people”. It was, after all, the voters who gave him the mandate in 2014 and 2019 to lead the nation.
With his approval rating now above 80 percent, the President is perfectly confident in his political powers. His army of volunteers are also ready to mobilize to support whichever candidate they deem to be worthy of being considered his successor.
Jokowi’s personal popularity is a problem in a political system dominated by political parties. In the lead up to the 2024 presidential election, the President has made attempts to influence the hunt for his successor by lobbying the political parties that support him, including the PDI-P. Not everyone is comfortable with his antics, for sure. But regardless of its merits or shortcomings, Jokowi has set a clear precedent of what a president can and cannot do when dealing with political parties, including his own.
The question now raised by voters, and maybe even Jokowi himself, is whether his successor will be able to exude the same confidence and resolve when dealing with political parties, especially the party to which they belong.
The PDI-P has asserted its supremacy by labeling its presidential candidate, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, as a “party official”. Ganjar won the nomination after showing his loyalty to the PDI-P by rejecting the participation of Israel in a soccer event that Indonesia had planned to host, which was an official party line.
It is said that the President is so concerned about the heavy influence the PDI-P has on Ganjar that the President is reluctant to anoint the white-haired politician as his successor. In a speech he delivered during the People’s Conference (Musra) earlier this month, the President reminded his supporters to be cautious when electing a leader.
He highlighted the importance of electing a brave leader, interpreted by one of his supporters as a dig at Ganjar and a shout out to Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s former rival who now portrays himself as protector of the President’s legacy.
It is now too early to say whether Ganjar can live up to the standards set by Jokowi or whether he will be the embodiment of a subservient “party official” as imagined by PDI-P matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri or his political opponents.
But the public expectations about this are clear. It is certainly important that a presidential candidate represents the ideals of his own political party, which is critical for the success of his programs, but it is only natural for the voters to expect their president to be seen as the leader of the nation, the leader for all, and not merely an official of his own party.
As an old adage goes, loyalty to the party ends where loyalty to the state begins. This is indeed a challenge for all presidential candidates.