Indonesia's Jokowi gets backing from rival Prabowo, who may join ruling coalition

In a photo taken on July 19, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) shakes hands with defeated rival Prabowo Subianto during their meeting on a train in Jakarta.
In a photo taken on July 19, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) shakes hands with defeated rival Prabowo Subianto during their meeting on a train in Jakarta.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA - President Joko Widodo, who was re-elected in April with a majority vote, has received the backing of defeated rival Prabowo Subianto, who on Monday (Oct 14) and Tuesday stressed that Indonesia needs to be united to face difficult times in years ahead amid rising global economic challenges.

The past week has seen strong signs that Mr Prabowo may be joining Mr Joko's ruling coalition after the President met his long-time rival at the presidential palace in the capital on Oct 11, with Mr Joko admitting later that he had discussed the possibility.

Following the meeting, Mr Prabowo held talks with the chiefs of three other political parties in the ruling coalition, coming away with promises to put the country's needs ahead of party interests.

Although defeated in the election, the former army general managed to garner 44.5 per cent of the vote. His Gerindra has been the main opposition party since 2009, when Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono started his second term as Indonesia's president.

The Straits Times understands that Mr Joko has agreed to the Gerindra party joining the coalition, but under the condition that other political parties in the ruling coalition support the move.

The news comes as Indonesia is feeling the impact of a protracted trade war between China and the United States, with exports stagnating and consumer demand slowing.

Analysts say if Mr Prabowo comes on board, it could pave the way for Indonesia to embark on its most stable political journey in the past decade.

The two men and their parties account for the most number of grassroots supporters among Indonesia's political parties.

Although the ruling coalition controls 61 per cent of the seats in the Lower House (DPR), it does not guarantee political stability.

 
 
 

As the main opposition party, Gerindra has been a vocal critic and obstacle to government policies.

It has for at least five years worked with influential labour unions and Islamist groups to hamper, among others, an unpopular labour reform needed for Indonesia to attract more foreign investment.

Investors have been scared off by current labour laws in Indonesia which call for hefty severance payouts and benefits to workers.

Gerindra joining the ruling coalition would bridge the divide between Mr Joko's pluralist constituency and the Islamists, as well as reduce the play of identity politics, observers say.

The April 17 presidential election in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, was deeply polarised with pluralists supporting Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Islamists backing Gerindra.

While most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate, the fundamentalists hold a louder voice and are more easily mobilised to take to the streets.

Their street rallies against the government have even stirred the moderates and labour unions.

In the past week, Mr Joko also met the chairman of the Democratic Party and National Mandate Party, both of which supported Mr Prabowo's failed presidential bid.

If Gerindra and the two parties join the ruling coalition, Indonesia would have only one opposition party - the Islamic-leaning Prosperous Justice party.

"A nation like ours needs a combination of all forces to work together for the people. We have to avoid divisions, especially those that may lead to physical clashes," Mr Prabowo told reporters on Monday night after meeting Mr Muhaimin Iskandar, chairman of the National Awakening Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

On Tuesday, Mr Prabowo met Mr Airlangga Hartarto, chairman of Golkar. The party has the second-largest number of seats in Parliament.

"At the meeting, we discussed ways to ensure political stability, which is the precursor to security stability... this would help the economy, which in turn would boost people's welfare," Mr Airlangga told reporters later.

Mr Prabowo also met Mr Surya Paloh, chairman of the Nasional Demokrat Party, another ruling coalition member, over the weekend.

The two leaders said they shared political views, and expressed a desire to work together. They also pledged to prioritise the nation's interest over the interests of their own political parties.

However, political observer Burhanuddin Muhtadi said that political parties in Indonesia do not form a coalition because they are driven by common political views and ideologies.

"It has always been based on parties seeking office, which is a short-term interest. It is not for policymaking."

"A party is considered to be part of the coalition if it has representation in the Cabinet. Otherwise it is out," Mr Burhanuddin, a lecturer at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, told MetroTV.

 
 

In the current administration, Mr Joko is supported by a Cabinet comprising individuals proposed by political parties in the coalition as well as non-partisan professionals and bureaucrats.

Mr Joko is expected to announce his new Cabinet members within a day of his inauguration. The swearing-in for his second and final term is on Oct 20.

Expanding the coalition would mean Mr Joko's administration would have an easier time with unpopular policies, such as cutting petrol subsidies or amending the country's inflexible 2003 labour law that has long hampered investments, Mr Burhanuddin said.

Plans to amend the law in the past were shelved by opposition politicians and workers' unions blocking draft Bills.

An expanded coalition would also help Mr Joko counter pressures from his own party, which in the past has had differences with the president and even threatened to end support for the popular leader.

Insiders told The Straits Times that PDI-P had pushed Mr Joko to appoint former police general Budi Gunawan, 59, as the State Secretary, a strategic post usually reserved for the President's most trusted aide.

Mr Budi was an adjutant to then Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the PDI-P chairman. He still maintains close and warm relations with her.

Mr Dodi Ambardi of the University of Gadjah Mada doubts the main motive behind the moves to form a larger coalition is based on national interests.

He said it is mainly a power-sharing arrangement.

Parties with the highest number of seats in Parliament would usually get Cabinet posts with the biggest annual budget or with the easiest access to economic resources.

"In addition, a political party granted a ministerial post would have a political stage, benefiting from consistent media coverage (on the minister's work and regular activities)."

"This is image building and campaigning for the party which requires no cost."