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Jakarta Post

Ma'ruf Amin could just punch the clock, phone in and still be a great VP

  • M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, February 5, 2020   /   10:16 am
Ma'ruf Amin could just punch the clock, phone in and still be a great VP President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (center) meets with his future vice president, the supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Maruf Amin (second left) and other officials in early 2016. (ANTARA FOTO/Yudhi Mahatma)

If during the first three months of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's second term, Vice President Ma'ruf Amin traveled no further than Japan, decided to call off his trip to Malaysia for the Kuala Lumpur Summit and spent most of his time sitting quietly next to the President during Cabinet meetings, that would not necessarily signal that he is an ineffectual "veep".

And if pundits and the media have all been crowing about Ma'ruf’s lackluster performance in his first 100 days on the job, then everyone has misjudged Ma'ruf's place in the Jokowi administration, if not completely misunderstood the role of the vice president as enshrined in the Constitution.

Truth be told, there's not much to the role for any vice president in any administration to begin with. The amended 1945 Constitution clearly stipulates that a vice president's only work is to help the President. (The Constitution was amended four times and the only stipulation left untouched was articles on the role and position of the vice president).

And if we can look past the vice president's legal position in the Constitution and consider only the political machination resulting in the appointment of Ma'ruf, the 79-year-old cleric's expiration date came soon after he was sworn into office.

When presidential candidate Jokowi decided to pick Ma'ruf as his running mate, there was a clear and present danger to the incumbent's prospect for being reelected: the surge of Islamists who could tip the balance in favor of his rival Prabowo Subianto. And the decision to pick Ma'ruf, a revered cleric from the country’s largest Islamic group Nahdlatul Ulama, was an effort to tilt the scales back.

Even during the political campaign, Ma'ruf's role was clear; he was the token figure to boost Jokowi's credential as a Muslim candidate, a strategy that has paid off well with Jokowi’s being reelected by a margin wider than what he secured in the 2014 election.

And if people continue to expect Ma'ruf to play a greater role in the Jokowi administration after only being Jokowi's handmaid during the political campaigning, it is simply because his predecessor, Jusuf Kalla, set a high bar for the vice presidential position.

Kalla's reputation as a can-do politician who gets the job done has indeed cast a long shadow. In the first term of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Kalla in fact played a crucial part in making key economic decisions to a point where he got to decide what type of fuel the country's poor got to use for cooking. The decision to phase out kerosene and shift to the much cheaper liquefied petroleum gas was Kalla's brainchild.

Such a crucial role has largely been curtailed in the first administration of President Jokowi, but he could play the role of a steady hand that could help steer the ship in case of an emergency.

But Kalla is an exception rather than a rule. Kalla has a wide political base that friends or foes should take into consideration. Not only did he represent the voting bloc from the eastern part of Indonesia, he continued to be a kingmaker within Golkar, the country's oldest political party.

No one before or after Kalla could come close to matching that feat. Yudhoyono's pick for vice president for his second term, Boediono, was a bookish university professor with no political background. He was a safe choice for a second-term president, but history would have little to write about him.

And if history can be our guide, even the best vice president with the most impressive pedigree did not stand a chance when dealing with an imperial president.

Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX was the reigning king of the Yogyakarta sultanate and a much-respected figure within civilian and military circles when he was appointed president Soeharto's first vice president in 1973. Yet he stood in silence when Soeharto took all the credit and made no effort to pay him respect when it was due.

It was reported that Soeharto required the presence of a third person in a private conversation, so that he could speak in Indonesian with the sultan rather than address him in high Javanese. In the end, Sri Sultan could no longer deal with the slight and resigned from his position in March 1978, citing poor health.

As for the sultan's predecessor, Mohammad Hatta, a figure looming large in the history books, he came from a different era, when political giants like Sukarno, Sjahrir, Soedirman and Tan Malaka operated on the scene as first among equals.

So, for now, Vice President Ma'ruf should just sit back and relax and enjoy his time on the job. After all, believing that he is only one heartbeat away from the presidency could be a terrifying thought. (United States president Lyndon Johnson, who took over from John F. Kennedy, was so petrified by the weight of the presidency that he decided not to run for reelection in 1968).

Playing second fiddle can be a lot of fun. There's an obvious reason why the HBO series Veep is a satirical comedy and not a suspense. The real drama happens on the West Wing.