Election 2019

Is Indonesia Ready for Jokowi vs. Prabowo, the Sequel?

After a drama-filled 24 hours, we're finally ready to start the presidential campaign season.
August 9, 2018, 4:56pm
Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo on stage back in 2014, the last time this showdown happened. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

The official announcements are in, and next year's presidential election is shaping up to be a remix of the 2014 race, but one that's been seriously affected by the drama, intensity, and religious conservatism of last year's Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo declared his candidacy in the coming election, choosing Ma'ruf Amin, an influential—and controversial—Islamic scholar, as his running mate. But it was rival Prabowo Subianto who stole the show, with his surprise pick of current Jakarta Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno as his VP throwing a wrench into the election's already tenuous political alliances.

When Prabowo finally made his declaration at 11:30 pm Thursday night, after hours of delays, it was without former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party. Prabowo reportedly made an eleventh hour trip to SBY's Mega Kuningan home Thursday night, but returned to declare his candidacy without their support.

The fact that Sandi, a multi-millionaire businessman who only recently entered politics, was able to trounce two men favored by an increasingly influential coalition of Islamist hardliners and the scion of a powerful political family sent shockwaves through the establishment. For months now, the list of Prabowo's potential running mates read: Abdul Somad, Salim Segaf Al-Jufri, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of SBY.

Watch our documentary on the Jakarta election: Trials and Tribulations on the Streets of Jakarta: Fault Lines

The Gerindra camp itself was teasing that it would choose a candidate whose name began with the letter "A," and SBY's Democrats had already sprung for massive billboards of Agus along major roads in Jakarta that contained little information beyond his initials "AHY," but were still seen as a sign of his presumed ascendance after a weak showing in the Jakarta gubernatorial race.

So when rumors that Sandi was Prabowo's pick broke on Wednesday, top Democrats lashed out on social media, with the party's deputy chairman Andi Arief accusing Sandi of basically buying the nomination by allegedly handing over Rp 500 billion ($34 million USD) in funds to two political parties that held powerful sway in Prabowo's coalition—the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

Both parties had previously tried to hold Prabowo over the coals, telling the press that he had to either choose one of their party members as his VP (they both wanted in), or risk one or either of them walking—a serious blow to the foundation of Prabowo's coalition of support. Gerindra, currently an opposition party, doesn't hold enough seats in the House to pass the presidential threshold to field a candidate alone, so he needs the coalition to run.

Instead, Prabowo had repeatedly met with the Democrats, angering both PKS and PAN in the process. That's why the Dems were seemingly so sure that it was AHY's nomination, and why the choice of not a PKS or PAN party member, but someone from Prabowo's own Gerindra party came as such a surprise. In the end, the Democrats sat this one out, leaving Prabowo to make his declaration with only three parties—PKS, PAN, and his own Gerindra.

Sandi denied the allegations that he paid for the nomination, but it did little to keep the claim out of the headlines on Thursday. But it was what Andi tweeted next that set social media ablaze. He called Prabowo, the former leader of the feared Kopassus Special Forces, and a man who has fashioned himself as a stern military man who can guide the country to prosperity through hardcore nationalism, as a "jendral kardus," or cardboard general. Trust us, it carries a lot more sting in Bahasa Indonesia.

Here are the tweets:

In English, they read, "Prabowo turned out to be cardboard. Tonight Prabowo tried to come to Kuningan, but the Democrats refused to let him. He didn't even care enough to send us a letter. Prabowo is more concerned with money than the struggle. Cardboard General."

"The Cardboard General has bad character, yesterday afternoon he met the Democrats chair, expressing sweet promises of to fight [together]," the second tweet reads. "Less than 24 hours later, he broke down and got hit with Sandi Uno's money to entertain PAN and PKS."

Indirect, they're not.

Gerindra's own deputy chairman Arief Poyuono then fired back, calling SBY, also a former military general, "jendral baper," or basically "the general of being embarrassingly emotional."

Then, as suddenly as it all began, the war over who was the worse kind of general died down with Prabowo meeting SBY at his home in Mega Kuningan for 45 minutes of discussions over how they could strengthen their coalition. The pair met again Thursday night, but were seemingly unable to reach a consensus.

Observers, and, really, anyone in the general public, soon accused Prabowo of selecting Sandi because of his incredible wealth. Forbes last estimated Sandi's worth at $795 million USD, making him the 27th richest man in the country. That's a pretty big campaign war chest.

Gerindra itself, though, argued that the decision to choose Sandi stemmed from a long tradition of running a Javanese presidential candidate with a VP of a different ethnic group. Arief, the party's deputy chair, told Liputan6 that Sandi was a better choice than AHY because Sandi is of Minang descent.

"Sandiaga, right, is not from Java," Arief explained. "It's for the sake of the Indonesian people, you know. It would be different if it was AHY. Then it would be Javanese and Javanese."

Still, some experts said the decision reeked of a lack of focus or a strong enough candidate among Prabowo's opposition coalition. Sandi is relatively untested, with less than a year as Jakarta's second-in-command under his belt—much of which was tainted by a series of blunders.

"Choosing [Sandiaga] as his running-mate is a fatal mistake," said Yohanes Sulaiman, a political expert at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani. "But even if he changed his mind at the last minute, and went with AHY instead, it would still be a blunder [for Prabowo]."

The problem, Yohanes said, is that the only real thing uniting the opposition is a shared interest in getting Jokowi out of office.

"For the longest time they didn’t have a platform, so they didn’t have the chance to come up with one strong idea or perspective for 2019," he explained. "They couldn’t come up with a name... So they don't know what to do, and they don't know what they’re fighting for.

"All they have in common is they don't like Jokowi—they’re all for the #2019GantiPresiden. All they have is that slogan, that’s what keeps them together. But when people ask, 'Who should be the next president?' they can’t seem to agree with one another. This slogan really brings together groups with different political interests."

Now, with voters facing a two-party race for 2019, we're all left with more questions than answers.

Can Prabowo's seemingly fragile coalition hold together? What will the Democrats do?

Can Jokowi secure a win in a very different political environment than 2014? And, even if he does, what's it mean for Indonesia?

Jokowi's running mate, Ma'ruf Amin, is seen as a safe choice in a political environment that's increasingly skewing along lines of religion and conservatism. Basically, Jokowi can't be seen a being less Muslim than Prabowo, so, as the argument goes, he needs someone with the clout of Ma'ruf Amin.

Meanwhile, Prabowo during his declaration, cast his campaign in populist terms, speaking of economic inequality, farmers' welfare, and labor issues, so, at least in the earliest hours of this campaign season, it's Jokowi who is swinging toward the religious right with a VP candidate who has actively petitioned against LGBTQ rights, as well as the rights of religious minorities.

Ma'ruf Amin isn't exactly a champion of pluralism, and there's a real worry that any young voters who want a more open, liberal Indonesia are now stuck with two less-than-ideal choices. And Jokowi himself isn't polling anywhere near as well as SBY did during the tail-end of his first term, so we'll all have to see if Jokowi's predicted post-regional elections bump actually plays out at the ballot box.

Still, with Indonesia's 20 percent of the House threshold still in effect, and in an increasingly crowded political landscape, there's little hope for a party to mount a third candidate pair for the presidential race.

"[It's hard to push a third presidential candidate] because of the effect of the presidential threshold of 20 percent ," said Ari Ganjar, a political observer at Padjajaran University. "This 20 percent effect also makes it difficult for parties to choose a vice president."

So maybe this year's race isn't a remix of the 2014 election. It's more of a sequel, but one where the stakes are higher, the twists keep coming, and the plot, sadly, makes a lot less sense.

—VICE staff writer Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja contributed to this report.