'Unsurprising' elements of 2019 election

Fakhridho SBP Susilo



Jakarta   /  Tue, August 28, 2018  /  11:49 am

Prabowo Subianto, against all odds, picked a vice presidential candidate from his own Gerindra Party: the former deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno.(JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

The 2019 presidential race has kicked off with what many have lauded as surprising moves by the two presidential hopefuls. In an unanticipated stroke, incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo chose as his running mate a senior cleric of a major Islamic organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, and head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Ma’ruf Amin. The announcement of Ma’ruf happened minutes before a ceremonial procession that would place former the Constitutional Court’s chief justice, Mahfud MD, as Jokowi’s running mate.  

From the opposing camp, Prabowo Subianto, against all odds, picked a vice presidential candidate from his own Gerindra Party: the former deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno. The decision quashed predictions that the general-turned-businessman would pick Agus Yudhoyono (known as “AHY”) as his running mate to honor his newly forged alliance with the Democratic Party or an ulema based on the recommendation of the clerics grouped under the political front, the National Movement to Safeguard the Ulemas’ Fatwa (GNPF-U). 

Though adding some suspense to the political drama, both Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s decisions more accurately captured the essence of rather longstanding structural flaws within Indonesia’s democracy. 

Writing in the 1990s, political economist Douglas North reminds us that human interaction and decisions are structured by the prevailing institutions or rules of the game in society. 

In Indonesia’s present electoral context, two institutional constraints seemed to be shaping the decisions of these actors, namely party cartelization and oligarchic politics driven by the high cost of political office.

Starting out his presidency with an eagerness to build a lean coalition, Jokowi’s coalition eventually ballooned from a four-party composition representing just 37 percent of legislative seats to a majority 69 percent, adding the Golkar Party, the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) into the original coalitional line-up of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI–P), NasDem, the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the Hanura Party. 

This maneuver can partly be understood as Jokowi’s attempt to reduce his dependence on his own PDI-P party. Yet, it inevitably brought Jokowi’s government into a similar pattern of power sharing exercised by his predecessors, which political scientist Dan Slater dubbed as “cartelistic”, as political parties fall in with the government to enjoy the spoils of office and state resources.  

Compared to his immediate predecessor, though, Jokowi was still able to exercise a degree of control over his allies as seen in how he reshuffled his Cabinet, twice, despite complaints from major party figures in the coalition. This is because the broadening of Jokowi’s coalition was driven primarily by what political scholar Marcus Mietzner calls a “coercive tactic”, intervening in the internal affairs of political parties that initially opposed him, rather than merely relying on the distribution of state resources in exchange for their support.  

The political edge that Jokowi gains from exercising this coercive tactic, however, is no longer present today. Joining Jokowi from the start of the presidential campaign — rather than midway through coercion when the government has already been formed — the moral upper hand lies with the coalition parties to make concessionary demands, which Jokowi cannot simply ignore in order to keep his coalition intact.

With no political machinery of his own to command, Jokowi needs the parties more than ever in the presidential race. Marshaling an even bigger coalition since the start of his campaign, Jokowi’s risk of falling even deeper into the trap of cartelistic politics and being held hostage by his coalition allies will be much greater. The first symptom of this was already apparent when he caved in to the will of his supporting parties in choosing a running mate rather than exercising his own conscience.  

In the meantime, Prabowo’s choice, though seemingly firm and decisive for not following the dictate of his coalition allies, actually bowed to a structural force that underpins Indonesian democracy, namely that of high-cost politics. The high cost of political office has allowed politico-business actors endowed with material wealth or, in the words of the scholar Jeffrey Winters, “oligarchs”, to exercise great influence, even dominate political life. 

Sources vary as to how expensive competing at national level can be, but the numbers point to Rp 3 trillion (US$205.2 million) to Rp 7 trillion. No wonder Indonesians, who make it on the list of the “richest 50” or “billionaires-100”, often join the political fray either as party leaders, financial backers, Cabinet officials, even candidates themselves. 

In the absence of appropriate and effective mechanisms for party financing, oligarchic politics becomes even more rampant, which raises serious questions over whether Indonesia’s democracy truly serves the interests of the commoners. 

Prabowo’s decision to choose a running mate who is among the wealthiest Indonesians is a testament to the oligarchy thesis. Though Prabawo is himself by no means a poor candidate, his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo who acts as his main political financier is reportedly facing a number of financial setbacks, having backed his elder brother’s failed political ambitions twice. 

Indeed, as admitted by one senior Gerindra official, “logistics” (read: financial resources) have been among the primary considerations in their selection of the vice-presidential candidate. While the oligarchy brand is by no means the exclusive domain of Prabowo’s camp — Jokowi himself is supported by business and media moguls — the logic of high-cost politics seems to be driving Prabowo’s camp more than it does Jokowi’s.  

And so the saga of the 2019 presidential election begins. Much remains to be seen about the vision and concrete programs that both candidates bring to the table. It is, however, clear that the symptoms of cartelistic politics and oligarchic reigns are ever present. Much of our current “surprises” are not that surprising after all, given the institutional constraints of Indonesia’s democracy. 


The writer works for the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) and is a PhD candidate on governance and policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University in Canberra.