Political rivalries build up ahead of 2019 election: The Jakarta Post columnist

Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks on during the Asean Canada 40th Anniversary Commemorative Summit on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on Nov 14, 2017.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks on during the Asean Canada 40th Anniversary Commemorative Summit on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on Nov 14, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With the presidential election less than one-and-a-half years away the electoral battle has already begun. Political party machines are gearing up, opinion wars are escalating and powerful elites are exploring possible alliances through ever intensifying political communication.

Using terms coined by James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games (1987), elections can be seen as "finite" games, which, in Indonesia's case, take place every five years. Today, however, election battles have shifted to become unlimited or 'infinite' games. Even after elections are over, a struggle over interests continues.

For example, the polarisation that resulted from the 2014 presidential election can still be felt today.

From the level of the elites to that of the lay people, this polarisation has become evident in various channels of mass communication. The fight appears eternal, going beyond the timeline of the election itself.

From the perspective of communications analysis, our current political situation displays the characteristics of relational dialectics. Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery in Relating Dialogues and Dialectics (1996) define relational dialectics as a situation characterised by the ongoing tension among contradictory impulses.

Politics is full of jostling, particularly in the mass media and on social media. Political tensions often become heated, even to boiling point, as we observed in the Jakarta election earlier this year.

At the same time, party alliances, both inside and outside of power, seem very fluid and continue to change as a consequence of developments in political dynamics. The House of Representatives' endorsement of the Election Law is just one example. On paper, the ruling coalition holds nearly 70 per cent of House seats.

In reality, however, one of the ruling coalition members, the National Mandate Party (PAN), joined the opposition bloc in a walk out of a plenary House session.

PAN's defiance reminds us of the attitude of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which opposed the official stance of the ruling coalition that supported the government of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) on matters relating to fuel price hikes and the House's investigation into a controversial bailout of Bank Century.

The maneuvering of elites, demonstrated by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto, Democratic Party leader SBY and others, should be seen in the context of relational dialectics. It is therefore premature to say that when they meet with each other, it means they will be allies in 2019. In politics, power relations involve neither a monologue approach nor a dualistic approach.

In a monologue approach, all parts of a contradiction are exclusive. When one part moves toward an extreme, it moves away from the others.

Meanwhile, in a dualistic approach, the parts of a contradiction are inseparable and unrelated to one another.

In our current political landscape, a dialectic approach is common, where one point of view collides with another in a contradiction. However, while a contradiction might involve two political allies, the resulting situation can surpass the limitation of a certain political pole.

To understand this phenomenon, Mikhail Bakhtin views social life as an open dialogue of many voices. This open dialogue is a battle arena in which points of view compete, find compromise or deny one another.

A lengthy battle, such as the 2019 elections, may bring surprise after surprise. First of all, the present power map will most likely change following the decision of the Constitutional Court on the presidential threshold. If the Court upholds the threshold of 20 per cent of House seats or 25 per cent of the national vote, coalitions will become polarised.

The most probable match up is Jokowi vs Prabowo as in 2014. With Golkar, Hanura, the United Development Party (PPP) and the NasDem Party having already announced their support for Jokowi, the incumbent will be eligible to contest.

Should this configuration remain, we could easily predict a swing in the political pendulum. The PDI-P with 19.5 per cent of House seats, the PKB with 8.4 per cent and PAN with 8.8 per cent could move in any direction, while Gerindra and the PKS seem to be united. Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be weighing up their options.

However, this landscape will totally change if the Court annuls the threshold decision. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition forces will recalculate their respective alliances .

The 2018 regional elections will also be fierce, particularly in the three crucial provinces of West Java, Central Java and East Java, home to 48 per cent of voters in the 2014 elections and probably likewise in 2019. The results of the simultaneous local elections in the three most populous provinces will significantly impact the political constellation of the 2019 elections.

The war of public opinion is closely related to the credibility, capacity and acceptability of the candidates, which can be converted into electoral capital. Today, the mass media and social media have become spaces for the endless battle of shaping public opinion.

It is crucial for Jokowi to retain the public's trust amid this divisive period of conflicting interests. This is especially important as a president's fourth year in office, which Jokowi will enter next year, is usually marked by a downturn in political support.

After three years, Jokowi still maintains significant public capital, as evidenced in a number of public opinion surveys conducted by various institutes.

The unity of Jokowi's Cabinet is currently being tested. It remains to be seen if all its members will remain committed to the governments' agenda or will split their focus ahead of the 2019 elections. Ideally for Jokowi, the ministries and institutions will remain committed to fulfilling his trademark slogan "work, work, work," at least until 2019.

Jokowi, therefore, should seek to prevent his Cabinet members from engaging in pursuits of power. Furthermore, for an incumbent like him, accomplishing his targets is the best campaign strategy.

The author is executive director of the Political Literacy Institute.