By Adelle Neary
Many commentators assumed following Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election that members of defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto’s six-party “Red and White” coalition would not want to be locked out of government and would seek to realign themselves with president-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Nearly three months later, however, the losing coalition remains remarkably intact and Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which hasn’t governed nationally since 2004, has been flat-footed in the political horse-trading.
The Red and White coalition compounded this situation by using its majority in the lame-duck legislature to pass a number of measures aimed at bolstering its position. The opposition also controls a majority of seats in the new parliament that was inaugurated on October 1.
Red and White lawmakers in the last parliament passed an important rule changing the way the Speaker of the House and other key committee posts are selected. Those spots will no longer go to the party with the largest share of seats in the legislature, which in this new parliament would be PDI-P. Instead it will be decided by vote — one that put a Golkar lawmaker in the post on October 2. PDI-P sought a judicial review of that rule change on multiple grounds, but all were rejected by the Constitutional Court this past week. So Jokowi’s party is now in the unusual position of holding a plurality of seats in, but not the leadership of, the legislature.
But the most controversial legislation passed by the outgoing parliament will abolish direct elections for provincial and district chiefs in favor of indirect elections by local legislatures. Jokowi’s coalition was stridently opposed to this move, as were a few isolated Red and White lawmakers. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was subject to swift and strong public blowback because, despite his public objections to the bill, nearly all the lawmakers in his Democrat Party walked out of the vote, allowing it to pass. He has since issued a presidential decree annulling the law, but that will probably force another vote in the parliament, where hopes would rest on his Democrats or some another opposition party breaking ranks.
The new law means the Red and White coalition, which controls 31 of 34 provincial legislatures, will be able to fill the vast majority of local leadership posts. Thanks to decentralization, Indonesia’s provincial and district governments receive sizeable transfers from the national budget and exercise licensing control, among other powers, over a range of crucial sectors including mining and forestry. These sectors, as high-profile corruption cases regularly demonstrate, are ripe for graft and can provide alternative sources of revenue, power, and influence to parties locked out of cabinet.
There is an element of petulance at play here as well. Jokowi — a clear outsider when it comes to Jakarta’s political class — was once elected mayor by the system that his opponents just abolished. Leaving provincial leadership decisions to elected representatives, rather than voters, reduces the chances of another outsider like Jokowi ascending to the nation’s highest office.
So what now?
Jokowi campaigned on a promise to govern with a “slim coalition” and has resisted the suggestion he should barter cabinet seats to lure parties away from the Red and White coalition. Post-election, he said he would allocate nearly half the seats in his cabinet to political parties with the other half reserved for technocrats or nonpartisan experts.
The PDI-P party leadership appears to be more pragmatic. On October 1, its secretary-general said party officials were “preparing options” in the event that the Democrat Party decided to flip its allegiance and said, “we are even willing to reduce our own quota [of cabinet posts]” to make room for other parties. Cabinet negotiations will likely go down to the wire, but for now most of the parties in Prabowo’s bloc seem comfortable remaining outside the ruling coalition.
Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party now ironically finds itself in the position to help save the democratic day as it seems to be the opposition party most likely to defect to Jokowi’s coalition. But that is complicated by the personal animosity between Yudhoyono and PDI-P chair Megawati Sukarnoputri, who he beat for president in both 2004 and 2009. Despite rumors the two would meet this week — a possible deadlock-breaker — Yudhoyono apparently rejected Megawati’s preconditions, which reportedly included that the Democrats switch their support to PDI-P for the speaker post. While Yudhoyono’s concern for his presidential legacy might still prove pivotal, Megawati will need to give ground too. Yudhoyono won’t want to be remembered as the president who watched Indonesia’s democracy unwind, which could drive a deal, if Megawati puts a reasonable one on the table.
Even then, the Democrats’ reduced share in the new parliament means that Jokowi’s coalition would still need another party to cross the aisle or draw 11 defectors from the Red and White coalition to overturn the law abolishing direct elections. Coincidentally, 11 Golkar lawmakers broke ranks during the first vote, and Jokowi’s vice president, Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla, would be quietly confident he could bring at least that number across the aisle again.
It is too early to gauge just how serious a problem the hostile behavior of the Red and White bloc will be for Jokowi’s presidency. As things stand, he faces the unprecedented challenge of governing Indonesia without a parliamentary majority while facing an openly hostile opposition bloc. Jokowi prides himself on his coalition-building skills and has pointed to previous instances where he managed hostile legislatures, both as mayor of Solo and as governor of Jakarta. He will hope to do so again.
His election win was narrower than he would have liked, but on the direct elections law, which most Indonesians disagree with, public opinion is firmly on the new president’s side. This may buoy him as he finalizes his cabinet and prepares to assume office. In the meantime, he is surely hoping privately that Indonesia’s fifth and sixth presidents, Megawati and Yudhoyono, whose intransigence is effectively tying his hands, can put aside their personal differences sooner rather than later.
Ms. Adelle Neary is an Australian foreign service officer and visiting Thawley Fellow in the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.