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Indonesia Vote Shapes Presidency Race as Jokowi Seeks Boost

Supporters gather in East Java
Supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle gather to see Jakarta governor Joko Widodo outside the city of Malang in East Java, Indonesia. Photographer: Berni Moestafa/Bloomberg

The crowd of people danced and sang in the fading afternoon heat outside the city of Malang in East Java, their shirts and flags melding into a sea of red. Cheers erupted from the supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle as their idol took the stage.

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said nothing about his party’s plans for the country should it win a large slice of seats in a parliamentary election tomorrow. Instead he appealed to voters for a big turnout for the party, known as PDI-P, in a vote that will affect his bid to become the next president of Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

“Why do we want to win big?” the wiry, heavy-metal music loving 52-year-old who goes by the nickname Jokowi told the 2,000 people gathered on a grass field March 30. “Because if we have a strong parliament, the president will also be strong. Thin but strong.”

Parties need 20 percent of seats or 25 percent of the total vote to stand a presidential candidate on their own, and even opinion-poll leader Widodo isn’t guaranteed a slot unless his party performs well and lifts its seat tally from the almost 17 percent it now holds. Stocks and the rupiah rallied after his candidacy was announced on optimism Widodo will apply nationwide the get-things-done approach he’s implemented in Jakarta on issues from infrastructure to tax collection, to help lift an economy that grew at the slowest pace in four years in 2013.

Poll Leader

Presidential candidates whose parties don’t reach the threshold must form a coalition to run, a prospect that looks likely for Widodo’s main challengers, former general Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra and tycoon Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar. If Widodo’s popularity means PDI-P can get a significant portion of the vote he may not have to form the type of large, disparate coalition that has been the hallmark of previous governments.

“Jokowi will still need to build a coalition, but I think the leverage the coalition partners will have on him would be limited if the PDI-P was able to do very well in the election,” said Leonard Sebastian, associate professor and coordinator of the Indonesia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The election is Indonesia’s fourth since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998. The nation is now the world’s third-largest democracy, with more than 185 million people eligible to vote. Counting the ballots cast across the 17,000 islands of the archipelago for the 560 seats in parliament will take several weeks, and final results aren’t expected until around May 7.

Easy Win

A Roy Morgan poll of 1,965 people released April 4 found PDI-P would be the only party to meet the presidential threshold, winning 37 percent of seats. Golkar came in at 17 percent and Gerindra at 14 percent. The same poll had Widodo as the preferred presidential pick of 45 percent of voters, 30 percentage points ahead of his closest contender, Prabowo.

PDI-P should be able to win 40 to 45 percent of seats in the new parliament and Widodo should “win the presidency with ease,” said Kevin O’Rourke, producer of the Reformasi Weekly Service analyzing Indonesian politics. By contrast, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat party won about 26 percent of seats in the 2009 vote and had to trade cabinet posts to form a coalition with five other parties. Yudhoyono is barred from standing for president for a third term.

“In this next government and parliament, I would expect such alliances and bartering of ministries to diminish in importance,” O’Rourke said.

What those alliances will look like remains unclear, and will likely depend on how each of the 12 parties contesting tomorrow’s vote performs.

Seeking Allies

“It’s hard to see any kind of natural allies in all of this,” said Hal Hill, a professor of Southeast Asian economies at Australian National University in Canberra. “I think the obvious pairing is what’s opportunistic.”

If PDI-P fares well in the vote and seeks a small coalition, potential partners would be the National Awakening Party, or PKB, newcomer NasDem, or the National Mandate Party, or PAN, said Marcus Mietzner, associate professor at ANU and author of “Money, Power and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia.” PDI-P has a historical alliance with moderate Islamic party PKB, and a tie-up with NasDem would be aimed at countering Prabowo, he said.

“If PDI-P only gets 20 percent of the votes, we’ll see another oversized, ineffectual coalition,” Mietzner said. “If PDI-P gets 30 percent, the party will be able to build a smaller coalition.”

Personality Contest

Jakarta stocks may rally if PDI-P wins 35 percent or more of the vote, said Harry Su, head of research at PT Bahana Securities in Jakarta. A PDI-P win of 30 percent or less would be “disappointing,” and shares could fall if it secures less than 20 percent, Su said by phone April 4.

In a nation where the major parties have similar policy views on issues from the economy to resource management to education, party campaigns have been focused more on pushing individual personalities than laying out details of platforms and how they would help ordinary citizens.

“It’s very much a personality contest, both at the local level and the national level,” Hill from ANU said. “If you were to look at Prabowo, Bakrie and Jokowi, what do they stand for? Well we don’t really know.”

He said there are “half a dozen things you could reel off immediately that they should be talking about,” such as fuel subsidies, infrastructure, inefficiencies in the labor market, civil service reform, regional autonomy and education and health care.

Such discussions have limited appeal to voters when choosing a candidate, and “the technocratic ones don’t get much of a look,” said Sebastian. “That is why someone like Jokowi is so viable because charisma and profile are probably more important than platforms and policy.”

Puppet Leaders

Another big personality in the race is Prabowo, 62, a former son-in-law of Suharto who was kicked out of the military for his role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists in 1998. He has campaigned as a strong leader who would bring decisiveness to the presidency, an image he has promoted by appearing on horseback at a rally with military-style parades.

He has warned voters against electing “leaders who are puppets,” a possible reference to Widodo and his powerful party chairwoman, former president Megawati Soekarnoputri.

In a March 19 interview with Bloomberg TV Indonesia, Prabowo cautioned against reading too much into opinion polls.

“Surveys are weapons in the war of politics,” he said. “I too can issue a survey and say I’m number one.”

Bakrie of Golkar, Indonesia’s oldest political party, has promoted resource protectionism alongside a focus on building infrastructure, without giving specifics.

Problems Faced

Indonesia needs “the courage to face and negotiate with parties overseas and the courage to explain to the public about the problems we face,” Bakrie, 67, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Indonesia Feb. 9. “We say thank you for buying our gas. But going forward, I will use this gas first and will only export the rest.”

The Bakrie family, a palm oil-to-property empire founded in Sumatra in 1942, rose from collapse in the 1998 Asian financial crisis with the purchase of coal mines from BHP Billiton Ltd., Rio Tinto Plc and BP Plc. That created PT Bumi Resources, Indonesia’s largest coal producer. His family coal business has faced financial probes.

With initial results from the parliamentary race possibly released tomorrow night, the formation of the presidential candidate line-up will move into high gear, and those campaigns will begin in earnest.

Watching the crowd sing Jokowi songs during the March 30 rally outside Malang, 56-year-old construction worker Kusnan Siswoyo said he planned to vote for PDI-P in the parliamentary polls and Widodo in the presidential election.

“We want small people to prosper, to be able to find jobs easier, we want food and shelter to be cheap.”

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