Critics blast Indonesian president for saying he could take sides in upcoming polls

Tria Dianti and Arie Firdaus
Critics blast Indonesian president for saying he could take sides in upcoming polls Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo looks on during his visit to the Malacañang Palace, in Manila, Jan. 10, 2024.
[Ezra Acayan/Pool via Reuters]

Election observers and political parties criticized the Indonesian president on Thursday for potentially compromising the hard-won neutrality of the electoral process by saying that he could take sides in next month’s polls. 

Civil society groups are becoming increasingly concerned that Joko “Jokowi” Widodo favors the presidential ticket made up of his eldest son, vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, and presidential hopeful and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Speaking during an event at an air force base on Wednesday, with Prabowo in attendance, Jokowi described as his “democratic and political right” being able to pick a side in the Feb. 14 general election, when a new president along with the national legislature and provincial assemblies will be voted in.

“The president can campaign, the president can take sides. It’s allowed,” Jokowi said, adding that it was important, however, for a president to not use state facilities while promoting a candidate.

“We are public officials as well as political officials. We can be political, ministers can too,” he added. 

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, emerged from decades of authoritarian rule in 1998. The February polls will be only the fifth direct presidential election and sixth democratic one to elect lawmakers since then.

The constitution does not allow the two-term incumbent Jokowi to seek a third one. Jokowi’s competitor in the previous two elections, in 2019 and 2014, was Prabowo, whom he named defense minister in 2019.

This will then be Prabowo’s third run for the presidency, with his competitors this time being former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan and ex-Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo.

On Thursday, Todung Mulya Lubis, the legal head of Ganjar’s campaign, said that Jokowi’s statement about picking sides was alarming because it was unprecedented. Jokowi seemed to disregard the fact that the president should be neutral, Todung said. 

The deputy campaign director of the third presidential candidate, Anies, said a 2017 rule allows the president to campaign but he thought that the president should remain neutral.

“The rules aside, the partisan attitude is undermining democracy,” Anies’ campaign deputy, Mardani Ali Sera, told reporters.

Vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s eldest son, attends the last vice presidential election debate at the Jakarta Convention Center in Jakarta, Jan. 21, 2024. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Mardani also said that Jokowi’s statement showed he was in a panic as recent polls suggested the election may go to a runoff.

That’s because recent polls showed that with fewer than four weeks left for D-day, Prabowo had not increased his lead to above the required 50% needed to win the race. 

“He is panicking, afraid of losing a run-off,” Mardani said.

Support for Prabowo is stagnating at 46-47%, according to the results of two surveys released last week, which makes a runoff in June likely.

Indonesia’s presidential election system requires a second round of voting between the top two candidates – called a runoff – if no one wins more than 50% of the votes on Election Day. The runoff, if needed, is scheduled for June 26.

Jokowi is reportedly frustrated over the Prabowo-Gibran pair’s stagnant performance, local magazine Tempo reported last week.

He held separate meetings early this month with the leaders of the parties that support Prabowo and Gibran and questioned efforts to boost their electability, the report said, citing unnamed sources.

For months now, analysts have been questioning whether Jokowi is trying to build a political dynasty by promoting his family members and loyalists to government. 

It didn’t help matters when last October, a controversial Constitutional Court ruling, helmed at that time by Jokowi’s brother-in-law, allowed Gibran to run as a vice-presidential candidate.

‘Keeping cabinet united is hard’

Meanwhile, a group of NGOs called the Civil Society Coalition for Clean Elections, condemned Jokowi’s statements as hurting democracy, and urged him to stay neutral and ensure the election is fair and transparent.

Presidential candidate and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (left) and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s eldest son, react after the last vice presidential election debate at the Jakarta Convention Center (JCC) in Jakarta on Jan. 21, 2024. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/ AFP]

A human rights group, Kontras, said Jokowi’s comments could encourage more abuse of authority.

Some ministers had already politicized social assistance programs to benefit certain candidates, Dimas Bagus Arya, the coordinator of KontraS, told BenarNews.

“[Jokowi] has to make sure his subordinates follow the constitution,” and for that he has to be fair himself, Dimas said.

Critics have also said it was important for the government to keep functioning smoothly until a new president is sworn in in October.

But Jokowi’s endorsement of Prabowo and his son could create discord and factions in his cabinet, said Yoes Kenawas, a researcher at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta.

“Keeping the cabinet united is hard in its final year and it’s become harder because Jokowi favors a certain candidate,” Yoes told BenarNews.

However, Ari Dwipayana, who leads the president’s special staff, said no cabinet ministers were planning to quit or were unhappy.

“All ministers, regardless of their political party affiliations, also work and ignore political disagreements. And there is no election influence in working,” he said in a statement Thursday.

But Yoes cited the example of technocrats such as Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati. She and Prabowo recently had a spat over funding for arms purchases.

So cabinet ministers with a technocratic background – people with expertise in a particular field – might feel uncomfortable with the politics and the potential compromises involved and resign, Yoes said. 

From what he has observed, “There are signs Jokowi wants [Prabowo and Gibran] to win at all cost.”


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