'Jokowi effect' fails to sway Indonesian elections

opinion April 11, 2014 00:00

By Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

Popular Jakarta governor tipped as next president faces a furious round of horse-trading as voters return a House divided

There were no tangible winners in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections on Wednesday. Ironically, the one that finished at the top should be the most disappointed.

The official result may still be a month away. But quick counts provide a strong enough indication as to the final result.

The outcome was another lesson in the fine balance that characterises the history of Indonesian politics. The established nationalist parties have topped the polls as expected. The Golkar Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), survivors of the Suharto era, remain firmly reliant on their loyal constituencies.

Despite having the most unsellable patron as its chairman, Golkar finished with a respectable turnout equalling its returns in the 2009 election. The party’s network continues to prove resourceful as masters of the “dark” political arts.

At present, the party stands pretty as its guile and cunning will allow it to hold sway in forming the requisite coalitions.

The PDI-P may be putting a brave face on the result, but it knows that it has failed to meet expectations heightened by the popularity of its presidential candidate Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”). The Jokowi effect had little sway in the legislative election.

Currently hovering between 19 and 20 per cent, based on quick counts, its returns were better than in the 2009 election but not much different than in the 2004 election when it gained 18.5 per cent of the vote.

The dominance it sought, with a target of 27 per cent, is nowhere near achieved. Now the house of Megawati Soekarnoputri will have to engage in the political horse-trading it has never been adept at: lobbying and coalition building.

The party may have a runaway popular presidential candidate in Jakarta Governor Jokowi, but the PDI-P will have to lower its expectations as it seeks a coalition partner to boost its numbers to meet the presidential nomination threshold.

Just a fortnight ago, the PDI-P and Jokowi seemed imperious as the most sought-after political commodities. Now, its political opponents are rubbing their hands in glee at the chinks within the party machinery. The “anything but Jokowi” rally will relish the challenge ahead.

Many had expected the Gerindra Party to fare well, but the poor showing of the PDI-P in emerging tallies has led to Gerindra exceeding initial prospects.

Indonesian voters have shown that as an alternative to apathy they are willing to pin hopes on new parties with “fresh” ambitions.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the ruling Democratic Party are two examples.

The Democratic Party burst onto the scene on the coattails of now-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s popularity in 2004, winning 7.4 per cent of the vote. Five years later, it tripled its gains.

Gerindra emerged five years ago with just 4.4 per cent. Now it has likely more than doubled that win.

With about a third of eligible voters below 30 years of age, memories of the past count for less. If people are not reminded of who its chairman is or of his military record as a defender of Suharto, then Gerindra’s presidential nominee, Prabowo Subianto, could gain further traction as a serious challenger to Jokowi.

Its impressive outcome in the election, its willingness to potentially be more accommodating to coalition partners and its financial resources potentially makes the party more genial to form early alliances with as the nation races toward the July presidential election. Unlike the PDI-P, it reached out to other parties ahead of the election.

The growing collegial relationship with the Democratic Party and its closeness with the Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP) have been on clear display.

Islamic politics remain an important voice in Indonesian politics. Traditionally, Islamic parties receive an average of one-third of votes.

This year once again, the five Islamic parties won an estimated combined 31 per cent of the vote. What is interesting, though, has been the shift back to the innate nature of Muslims to vote for the PPP or the National Awakening Party (PKB).

The PPP had been on a downward spiral since the 1999 election when it won 10.7 per cent, to just over 5 per cent in 2009. Even with the fallout of the corruption scandals dogging the PKS, it has been able to woo voters back and arrest the slide with estimated returns now at above 6.6 per cent.

Similarly, the PKB is set to rekindle the glory it enjoyed during the days of Abdurrahman Wahid when it was the biggest Islamic party. In 1999, it won 12.6 per cent of the vote.

But support for the party slowly dwindled, and by 2009 it was even smaller than the PPP. Quick counts indicate that the PKB will stand tall with over 9.1 per cent of the vote.

Ultimately, what this all means is that the House of Representatives will be even more prone to transactional politics, with no strong leading party and smaller segments and blocks in the legislature. Unless a truly strong coalition can be held together and the president truly exploits his position in the bully pulpit, it will be possible to hold various laws and government policies to ransom at the House.

The proportional representation system that characterises electoral politics here ensures that there are no absolute winners in this type of election. And once again we have learned that in Indonesian elections, you don’t have to finish number one to be a winner.