JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Former general Prabowo Subianto is firming up as a candidate for Indonesia's presidential election, raising the prospect of a rerun of the bitter 2014 race that saw Joko Widodo take power in South-east Asia's biggest economy.
In the strongest signal yet, the co-founder of the main opposition party known as Gerindra has indicated that Prabowo would be the party's nominee for president, something that needs to be finalised by August ahead of the April 2019 vote.
Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who is also Prabowo's brother, said Gerindra had the funds to support a "credible" presidential campaign.
"All things being equal, he will run for president next time," Djojohadikusumo said in an interview on Feb 20 in Jakarta, when asked about Prabowo. "In the next election, 2019, we're asking for our turn."
A repeat of the 2014 contest would see Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, pitted against an opponent who has sought to build an image of a populist in touch with voters on bread-and-butter issues like education and tackling inequality. While Jokowi is popular in opinion polls, and has focused on improving access to healthcare and infrastructure in the archipelago of 17,000 islands, he has fallen short of a promise to boost economic growth to seven per cent.
Jokowi is the first president to come from outside the political elite and the military, while both Prabowo and Djojohadikusumo have strong ties to Indonesia's dynastic families. Their father served as a minister under former ruler Sukarno and dictator Suharto, and was a chief architect of Indonesian economic policy in the late 1960s. Prabowo was married to a daughter of Suharto.
Since Prabowo's loss in 2014, Gerindra has assumed the mantle of the country's main opposition party while Prabowo has remained visible in the political arena.
Gerindra has criticised Jokowi's move to ban the hardline Islamic organisation Hizbut Tahrir, and joined other parties in protesting a law on the threshold needed for parties to field a candidate in 2019. Parties must have at least 20 per cent of seats in parliament or have secured a minimum 25 per cent of the popular vote in the last legislative election to nominate a candidate.
Djojohadikusumo said Gerindra would fight the election on economic issues, adding the party wants a budget shake-up that would see more money for defence spending. And he said it would seek to be less reliant on China. "Our government's finances are too dependent on China," Djojohadikusumo said, and money from China comes with "strings attached".
Indonesia's economy is growing at about five per cent and is forecast to pick up again this year while inflation is expected to moderate further, presenting a potential electoral boon for Jokowi heading into the campaign. However, growth remains well short of Jokowi's target, while revenue from tax collection is low.
"We are underachieving," Djojohadikusumo said, without elaborating. "For Indonesia, five per cent is not good enough."
Jokowi has proven himself a shrewd politician after converting minority support in the parliament when he came to power in October 2014 into a majority backing of more than two-thirds of lawmakers. A recent poll by Saiful Mujani Research Centre of 1,220 people put Jokowi on 64 per cent support with voters, compared to Prabowo on about 27 per cent.
Still, "as matters now stand it's Jokowi's to lose but we're a long way from the election and enormous amount can happen between now and election day," said Tim Lindsey, an Indonesia analyst at the University of Melbourne. "We can expect a very well funded, highly strategic and efficient campaign from Prabowo."
Amid the influence of more conservative groups in the world's largest Muslim majority nation, religion is expected to be a prominent feature of the campaign, which will officially begin in September. The Jakarta gubernatorial race last year was a potential harbinger, delivering a strong win to Prabowo-backed Anies Baswedan in a race marked by large rallies by Islamic groups against the incumbent, Chinese-Christian Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok.
Jokowi, who in the final days of the 2014 election visited the holy city of Mecca to fend off questions over his Muslim credentials, faced months of unrest before the Jakarta vote. Ahok was later jailed for two years for insulting Muslims over comments he made about the Koran.
"The Jakarta election served as an important warning for Jokowi," said Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. The Jakarta election entrenched polarisation that began in the 2014 presidential vote, he said.
Lindsey said Prabowo would be expected to play on anxiety towards China, which has built its economic and military clout in the region in recent years and is in dispute with some South-east Asian countries over parts of the South China Sea.
China has sought to be part of the massive infrastructure agenda at the heart of Jokowi's first term. Foreign direct investment from China increased from about US$600 million (S$791 million) in 2015 to US$3.3 billion last year.
Concern about China's expansionism is "a fault-line in Indonesian society and undoubtedly people will respond to that, particularly if it's about economic protectionism," Lindsey said.