September 13, 2022
JAKARTA – The legislative and presidential elections are just 17 months away. Only the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) can nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates without having to form a coalition. At the same time, PDI-P has at least three challenges that need addressing before the elections because they will define the party’s future.
First, PDI-P Chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri still insists that her daughter Puan Maharani contest the presidential race. The problem is public opinion surveys have consistently shown Puan’s low electability rating, far behind that of popular candidates, including Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, who is also a PDI-P cadre.
In my view, Puan’s low score stems from at least two factors. First, her track record as a legislator and as a minister is not impressive at all. Second, there is still strong resistance to female presidential candidates among Muslims, the majority of the Indonesian population.
The second challenge is Megawati’s age. The paramount party leader will turn 77 in 2024, but the party, let alone Megawati herself, has yet to start talking about succession.
Naturally, PDI-P supporters in the grassroots want the party to remain under the descendants of the country’s first president Sukarno. They believe Sukarno’s offspring are the rightful safeguard of his Marhaenism, the party’s ideology that emphasizes national unity, culture, collectivist economics and democratic rights as an antithesis to liberalism.
It is almost unrealistic, however, to expect Megawati’s three children, including Puan, to share the power in leading the party in the future.
Third, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will end his second five-year term in October 2024. When he leaves office, he will be 63 years old, which is still within a productive age as a politician.
Jokowi will likely remain popular and powerful even after ending his presidential tenure. He will be playing a role of more than just a kingmaker. Although he does not own PDI-P, he will enjoy solid support from within the party for several years ahead. Jokowi and Megawati have built a strong personal bond partly because he knows how to entertain her, including by appointing her to the top position at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).
I believe Megawati has her own plan about her future relationship with Jokowi. It is highly probable that she wants Jokowi to hold a high position at the party, such as executive chairman. But based on her own experience, she also knows it is difficult to control Jokowi.
Megawati, Indonesia’s fifth president, should know Puan stands little chance to win the 2024 presidential election, but so far Megawati prefers to act as a good mother who always encourages her daughter to keep trying. Megawati, daughter of Sukarno, realizes it is nearly impossible for her to maintain the party as a family business after the 2024 elections. Neither her two sons Mohammad Rizki Pratama, Mohammad Prananda Prabowo, nor daughter Puan will be ready to take over the party’s leadership when something happens to their mother. While Rizki has no interest in politics, Prananda has opted to remain behind the scenes as Megawati’s speech writer.
As long as Megawati is still in charge, she can run the party like a dictator, with all party executives and members remaining loyal to her. And when she gets seriously sick or even dies, she will leave a leadership vacuum because there is no real number two or three in line for the party’s throne.
PDI-P is the continuation of PDI – a fusion of several parties including Sukarno’s Indonesian National Party — one of three political parties that Soeharto allowed to exist during his 32-year dictatorship. In July 1996 Soeharto cracked down on PDI, or three years after Megawati won the party leadership. Megawati became an icon of democracy until Soeharto fell from grace in May 1998.
In 1999, PDI became PDI-P and won 33.74 percent of the vote or 153 legislative seats in the country’s first democratic legislative election. But Megawati could only become a vice president because Islamic parties preferred the blind Muslim cleric, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid to be the country’s fourth president. Megawati replaced Gus Dur in July 1999 after the People’s Consultative Assembly impeached him.
In 2004, Indonesia held its first direct presidential election, which saw incumbent Megawati lose to her former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, PDI-P won the most seats or 109 House seats.
Yudhoyono beat Megawati for the second time in 2009, while PDI-P could only finish third in the legislative election with 95 seats.
In 2014, at the last minute, Megawati endorsed then Jakarta governor Jokowi as presidential candidate against Prabowo Subianto. PDI-P became the largest party again by winning 109 House seats. In the 2019 elections, Jokowi handed Prabowo his second back-to-back defeat, while PDI-P retained the number one party with 19.33 percent of the vote or 128 House seats.
What steps does Megawati need to deal with the three aforementioned challenges?
First, she should reconsider Puan’s candidacy in the presidential race because of her thin chance to win. A defeat will further erode PDI-P’s popularity. Realistically, Puan can run for vice president, although that will not be easy either.
It is not impossible to repeat a last-minute decision as was the case in 2014, when Megawati nominated Ganjar as the presidential candidate. This can happen, especially if President Jokowi makes his preference clear to her.
Second, promoting Jokowi to the party hierarchy will become at least a temporary solution to prevent a power vacuum when something happens to Megawati. It means that it is just a matter of time before the Sukarno clan loses their absolute control over PDI-P.
*** The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.