On Wednesday 9 April 2014, the Indonesian electorate (consisting of about 190 million people out of a total population of around 250 million) will vote for both the country's national and regional legislatures. This legislative election also bears a big influence on the presidential election that is scheduled for 9 July 2014 as a minimum of 25 percent of the popular vote in the legislative election (or 20 percent of seats in the House of Representatives, DPR) gives a party the authority to nominate a presidential candidate.
If a political party fails to meet this criteria, then it will need to form an alliance with at least one other party to meet the threshold. Such a coalition implies negotiations about who the coalition's presidential candidate and vice-presidential candidate will be (both have to run as a fixed pair in the July presidential election). Although the Indonesian presidency has lost considerable power since the era of democracy and decentralization (an era labeled Reformation) - after the sudden collapse of the authoritarian Suharto regime in the late 1990s -, while the parliament gained power, for Indonesians the more important matter is who will become the next president. Therefore, next week's legislative election will see a lot of strategic voting. For example, the main opposition party Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, has gained popularity according to recent opinion polls after Sukarnoputri announced that Joko Widodo (the highly popular Governor of Jakarta who is popularly known as Jokowi) would be the PDI-P's presidential candidate for the July presidential election.
In recent months, a large quantity of opinion polls (conducted by various Indonesian institutions) that measure the popularity of Indonesian political parties and presidential candidates have been published. However, it is also widely known that many of these surveys are sponsored for political motives and are therefore not 100 percent reliable. But, if we take all the surveys together and make a general consensus, then we notice three political parties continuously leading the polls. These are the PDI-P, Golkar and Gerindra. What these three parties share is that they are 'secular' parties (as opposed to the 'Islamic' parties that aim for a stronger role of Islam in Indonesian politics and society). Therefore, all three support religious pluralism and tolerance as well as democratic values.
Similar to all other Indonesian parties, they are also pro-poor as poverty or near poverty still form a major problem. However, such a 'pro-poor' attitude is also a technique to gain popularity and therefore we see much inconsistency in parties' political views. For example, when the PDI-P was in power in 2003 it supported a reduction in fuel subsidy to relieve the State Budget and make the economy less distorted (as subsidies create an unnatural economy that leads to a crisis when the bubble bursts). However, as an opposition party, the PDI-P is against subsidy reductions as it burdens the poor. In general, such inconsistency (and focus on short-term politics) is one of the largest problems in Indonesian politics (and also one that impacts negatively on the investment climate).
Although Indonesia has made considerable progress on its road toward democracy, the country can still be labeled a 'flawed democracy'. Most Indonesians would agree that they live in a democracy because they can participate in fair and free elections every five years. However, what is the meaning of these elections when the choices that are given to the electorate are not the result of a democratic process? Leadership within the largest Indonesian political parties is not based on democratic principals but rather rests in the hands of a single personality. As such, the party is simply a vehicle used to transport its leader to the presidential seat and there is few room for joint decision making within most political parties. Status, wealth, money-politics and nepotism are still the influential factors in Indonesian democracy today (resulting in a sort of oligarchy in which politics and business blend together). The Jokowi-case, on the other hand, does show that Indonesians are becoming increasingly tired of the political status-quo and long for a new type of leadership.
Contrary to most Indonesian political leaders today, Jokowi - the current Governor of Jakarta - does not come from a wealthy family background and it shows in his 'pro-poor' style of leadership as he often visits poor neighborhoods in Jakarta to communicate with locals, and pushed for free healthcare and education for the urban poor. It is indeed questionable the extent to which other leaders - the ones that grew up in the wealthiest conditions - are capable of relating to the poorer segments of Indonesian society. They are seemingly much more interested to maintain the political status-quo, and a 'pro-poor' attitude is merely regarded a technique to gain votes.
Partai Demokrat Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P)
The PDI-P, which emerged due to a schism in the Indonesian Democratic Party in the 1990s, has been one of the most influential political parties in Indonesia's modern history and is more-or-less the political vehicle of the Sukarno family (Sukarno is one of the most respected national heroes and first president of Indonesia). Leadership of the PDI-P party is now in the hands of his daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati had already been Indonesian president between 2001 and 2004 after the ouster of Abdurrahman Wahid but her performance as president is generally regarded as poor as she did not make real efforts to reform the country and basically lacked strong leadership and vision. However, she can still rely on huge popularity (particularly on Java and Bali), primarily based on the status of her father. In recent years, Megawati's daughter, Puan Maharani, has increasingly come to the foreground and is expected to take over from her mother in the near future (speculation has emerged that Puan Maharani could become Jokowi's running mate in the July election if the PDI-P can win enough votes next week).
For a long time, it remained unknown whether the PDI-P (read Megawati) would nominate Megawati again as the party's presidential candidate. However, because of her age, the fact that she had always lost in previous elections, and high popularity of Jokowi's rising star, the party decided to nominate Jokowi. A good strategic decision because many people who support Jokowi for president will now vote for the PDI-P.
Golongan Karya (Golkar)
Golkar (Party of the Functional Groups) was the political vehicle of Suharto during his New Order regime. However, Golkar continued to enjoy popularity after Suharto's fall as it possesses the best developed political party-infrastructure (up to the village level across the archipelago) and has successfully reformed its image by sidelining leaders that are considered too close to Suharto's circle and the military (as the New Order was a military backed authoritarian regime). However, it should also be remembered that a significant portion of the Indonesian people were (and still are) content with the performance of the New Order regime as it brought considerable economic development as well as strong leadership (after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia entered a period of increased religious, ethnic and regional violence due to weak leadership amid a highly diverse and large country).
Golkar differs from the PDI-P, Partai Demokrat (PD) and Gerindra because its leadership does not rely on a single personality or kinship. This is another reason why the party continues to post good results in post- Suharto elections (as it is less dependent on the popularity of its leader). Through conventions, it choses its leader. However, money politics remain influential in these conventions. Golkar's current Chairman (and the party's presidential candidate) is Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia's richest businessmen. It is a controversial nomination as companies connected to Bakrie have been linked to corruption cases and other scandals (for example the Sidoarjo mud flow). This has also led to factional conflicts within the party. But although Bakrie cannot rely on popular support from the Indonesian electorate, the Golkar party is expected to be among the best two performing parties in the 2014 legislative election.
Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Gerindra)
The third party, Gerindra (founded in 2008), is the youngest of the currently most popular parties. Gerindra is the political vehicle of Prabowo Subianto, former special forces commander and former son-in-law of Suharto. Prabowo is known as a fierce supporter of nationalism as well as domestic control over Indonesia's resources (therefore he is less open to foreign investment). In the 2009 legislative election, his party won 4.5 percent of the popular vote and is expected to collect a double-digit figure in next week's election. Despite Prabowo being linked to human rights abuses in the late 1990s (against Indonesian students who called for the resignation of Suharto) and despite coming from a corrupt background (the inner Suharto circle), he can rely on considerable support because the Indonesian people regard him as a strong leader. Many Indonesians feel that Indonesia currently lacks a strong leader who can push for higher economic growth and can curtail corruption.
Partai Demokrat (PD)
The last secular-nationalist party that I mention here is incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party (PD). Established in 2001 as Yudhoyono's political vehicle to reach the presidency, the party's popularity grew rapidly. In 2004, it collected seven percent of the vote (an impressive result for a new party) and enabled him to join the presidential race (in 2004 a party only needed five percent of the vote to be authorized to nominate a candidate for the presidency). The party supports economic liberalization, political and cultural pluralism, and has an internationalist outlook (implying that it has an open attitude toward foreign investment). One of its primary slogans in previous elections involved the eradication of corruption within Indonesia's political arena. In the 2009 election, the PD made a clear victory by collecting 20.8 percent of the vote as people were content with Yudhoyono's performance in his first term. Factors that contributed to this victory were massive cash programs to support the poor and declining food and fuel prices which contributed to the notion that the national economy was performing well. The public also considered Yudhoyono to be sincere in toppling corruption; the PD was known as the least corrupted political party. However, in his second term a number of corruption scandals emerged within the PD party (including the party chairman and party treasurer). Based on opinion polls, the party's popularity has now declined drastically and is expected to win less than ten percent of the vote in next week's election (but is likely to stay within Indonesia's top five political parties).
Another problem for the PD is that it has been the political vehicle of Yudhoyono and therefore relies heavily on his personality. With him being unable to run for a third term (as the Indonesian constitution stipulates a two-term maximum to the presidency), the party has more or less lost its validity. A new leader will be decided soon through a convention (candidates include Pramono Edhie Wibowo, Gita Wirjawan and Dahlan Iskan) but for most Indonesians it is very difficult to visualize a different face to the party's leadership. On the other hand, Golkar is a successful example of a party that has been able to reform itself from its former image, therefore it is not inconceivable that the PD party has a long-term future.