Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s party is putting its presidential hopefuls through an American Idol-style contest that will see them criss-crossing the country for eight months while footing some of the cost.
The contestant who tops a nationwide public survey held by May will win the Democrat Party nomination for the July election, according to Suaidi Marasabessy, secretary of its convention committee. Among the 11 standing in the party primary are Pramono Edhie Wibowo, Yudhoyono’s brother-in-law and a former army chief of staff, and Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, a former JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker.
The winning candidate faces an uphill battle to revive the party’s fortunes and lead it to a third-straight presidential win, with three senior party officials facing graft charges in the past two years and Yudhoyono’s legacy of economic stability threatened by a sliding rupiah and record current-account deficit. Opinion polls show voters in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population supporting other parties.
“It’s a desperate way to gain popularity,” said Keith Loveard, head of risk analysis at Concord Consulting, a Jakarta-based security and risk advisory company, of the selection process. “The Democrats have become -- perhaps always were -- the machine of SBY, and without SBY there from 2014 the party is effectively leaderless,” he said, referring to Yudhoyono by his acronym.
Yudhoyono, whose party won the 2009 election and who can’t run for a third term, invited his former Vice President Jusuf Kalla to take part in the contest, Kompas reported in May. Kalla declined and likened it to Indonesian Idol, the local version of Fox Broadcasting Co.’s talent show.
The Democrat candidate may face Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, who has topped several popularity surveys. The PDI-P hasn’t announced its candidate. Another poll favorite is former general Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra party.
The coalition government, which includes the nation’s second-biggest party, Golkar, has come under scrutiny this year as inflation in Southeast Asia’s largest economy reached a four-year high, the rupiah fell and economic growth slowed below 6 percent for the first time since 2010.
“If the economic situation worsens this will be bad for the Democrats,” said Yose Rizal, founder of politicawave.com, which tracks political discourse on the Internet. Still, it may not impact the race to be the party’s candidate “because people tend to look at the track record of a candidate and less so on their vision” for managing the economy.
Trade Minister Wirjawan, 47, was president of JPMorgan’s Indonesian unit for two years until 2008. He oversaw record foreign direct investment as chief of the investment board before becoming trade minister. He installed a piano in the ministry’s foyer and occasionally plays jazz.
His policies as trade minister have gone down less well with mining investors, and the government has backtracked in recent months on rules setting food import quotas and restricting mineral ore shipments. Wirjawan, who is not a Democrat member, told reporters on Sept. 15 he aims to boost the economy with equitable growth.
Pramono, 58, joined the Democrats after retiring from his army post in May, and has said he won’t “drag” the army into his campaign. “If a former subordinate sympathizes with me then I won’t prohibit it,” he told reporters on Sept. 15.
“Pramono is being talked up in sections of the media by the Yudhoyono family as a serious presidential candidate but he has few obvious political skills and he’s a poor public speaker,” said Greg Fealy, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. “He’s not the future savior of the Democrat Party.”
Election rules require a party or a coalition to hold at least 20 percent of parliament seats or win 25 percent of votes in the legislative election -- due in April -- to nominate a presidential candidate. The Democrats ranked second with 10.3 percent in a survey of party popularity by the Soegeng Sarjadi School of Government and released on Detik.com, behind the PDI-P on 13.6 percent. Gerindra was third and Golkar fourth, according to the survey conducted Aug. 25-Sept. 9 with 1,250 respondents in 10 cities.
If Widodo were to run for president he’d win, the survey showed, with 45.8 percent of respondents picking him, followed by Kalla on 9 percent.
Pramono said if he was selected by the convention he would welcome the chance to be Widodo’s deputy, according to a report in the Jakarta Globe today. Pramono has also likened his leadership style to the Jakarta mayor.
The Democrat machinery, supported by 50 billion rupiah ($4.5 million) of party funds, will allow participants to go on the campaign trail across Indonesia, party secretary Marasabessy said. The funds don’t cover travel expenses for campaign teams and participants must pay for their own merchandise such as T-shirts, he said.
Two public surveys will be held throughout the contest with the last one to determine the outcome in May at the latest, said Marasabessy.
Other candidates are State-Owned Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan, House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie, and Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. Dino Patti Djalal.
Former military chief of staff Endriartono Sutarto, former youth and sports minister Hayono Isman, Regional Council Chairman Irman Gusman and Governor of North Sulawesi province Sinyo Harry Sarundajang are also among the contenders.
The rest are Ali Masykur Musa, a member of the state audit board and head of the scholars association of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization, and Anies Baswedan, dean of Paramadina University in Jakarta.
The process is a form of political education that may pave the way for other parties to follow suit, Ahmad Mubarok, a member of the party’s advisory board, said on Sept. 6.
Still, “the general consensus is the whole idea is a bid to overcome the negative publicity about the party due to all the corruption cases,” Concord’s Loveard said.
Former party treasurer Muhammad Nazaruddin was sentenced to more than four years in prison for bribery in 2012, while the anti-graft agency has convicted the country’s ex-traffic police chief, arrested the head of the oil regulator and raided the central bank.
“The Democrats are not going to achieve very much by touting a lot of second-level talents around the country,” Loveard said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com