The Asian Voice

No heroes or villains in Indonesia's Democratic Party saga: Jakarta Post columnist

The writer says that the crisis within the Democratic Party will not only tarnish the political system but also undermine the President's efforts to tackle other problems.

Chairman of the Democratic Party Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono delivers a speech during a news conference in Jakarta on March 5, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS/ANKARA FOTO

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There aren't many heroes in the latest saga rocking the Democratic Party, but plenty of villains seem to be involved, and Indonesia's democracy is certainly worse off because of the drama.

A hostile takeover of a political party's leadership, with a government official at the helm, certainly takes political chicanery to a whole new level, even by Indonesian standards. But we'll get to that in a minute.

The incumbent leaders of the Democratic Party, chairman Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and the chairman of the party's supreme council, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, painted themselves as the victim of a hostile takeover and their effort to save the party from outside interference as the fight to defend the country's democracy. That battle cry could easily ring true and democracy defenders could rally around the Democratic Party - if only the call was not made by the current party chairman and Yudhoyono's political scion, Agus.

The Democratic Party, despite its name, has never been a standard-bearer for democratic values and norms. And those who rallied around Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko in his bid to take over the party leadership may have a point when they claimed they were fighting against nepotism and Yudhoyono family's control over the party.

The former first family has long kept a stranglehold on the party. Long before Agus was appointed party chairman last year, the family dispatched Yudhoyono's in law, Pramono Edhie Wibowo, to run in a party convention in 2014 to select its presidential candidate. Also, shortly before the convention, in February 2013, Yudhoyono himself took over the party leadership from then-chairman Anas Urbaningrum, who was being investigated by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for graft.

The former president served as party chairman for seven years and would only relinquish the position to Agus last year. But this should not lend credence to the hostile takeover of an opposition political party, especially if it was led by a sitting government official.

After all, it's not like the Democratic Party is an outlier when it comes to playing dynastic politics - just ask the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) or the National Awakening Party (PKB).

The sight of a government official delivering a speech in front of a rebel faction within a political party unilaterally declaring his leadership should send shivers down the spines of all party members across Indonesia.

If that can happen to a relatively well-organised and well-established party like the Democratic Party, many can certainly wonder if such a machination could be directed at other political parties, especially those who are in opposition of the government.

As things now stand, only two political parties remain in the legislative branch of government that could be considered a legitimate opponent: the embattled Democratic Party and the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). And if the Law and Human Rights Ministry decides to recognise Moeldoko's leadership in the Democratic Party, the PKS will be the only opposition party in the House.

With only 50 seats gained from 8.2 per cent of the national vote, the PKS will be a diminished and insignificant opposing force.

A healthy democracy requires the presence of a robust opposition serving as a counterbalance to the ruling government, and a single political party fighting against a dozen in the administration is not an ideal situation.

And then there's the question of legality with regard to the hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, because the last time we checked, Indonesia is still a country of law. The Democratic Party's own statute stipulates that an extraordinary meeting, including one to elect a new chairman, requires the approval of the party's supreme council, currently chaired by Yudhoyono, as well as consent from two-thirds of the party's provincial leadership and the support of half the party's district leadership. These basic principles are enshrined in the party's founding document and the government itself has given its stamp approval.

Media reporting from the ground said the extraordinary meeting to officiate Moeldoko's leadership was attended by only a handful of party district leaders and none from the provincial branches of the Democratic Party.

There are also questions about Moeldoko's status as a party outsider, which certainly raised eyebrows. At worse, his outsider status could sway public opinion to go against his presumed leadership of the party. Even during the darkest days of the country's democracy, when the New Order regime was still at the height of its power and attempted to orchestrate a hostile takeover of a political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), it at least used an insider to lead the effort.

All these shenanigans and their possible escalation in the coming days could backfire or at the very least, cast a negative light on the government. The image of a trusted aide of an incumbent President taking over the leadership of an opposition party, which happened to be controlled by a former president, could certainly impact the public image of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

Even if we assume that the takeover was the initiative of an enterprising presidential aide like Moeldoko, many could certainly believe the President was at least briefed on the matter. Again, this would not look good for the President.

This is a risky high-stakes game and will only hurt President Jokowi's effort to tackle more serious problems like the Covid-19 pandemic and the country's economic problems.

Until news broke about the Democratic Party's extraordinary congress, the main media headlines were the steady progress of the government vaccination programme - and that should continue to be good news. At the very least, President Jokowi should make a public statement to distance himself from the Democratic Party "coup".

After all, this saga involved a high-profile former president and he certainly does not want to be accused of aggravating the situation. In his first term in office, analysts blamed Jokowi for eroding Indonesia's democracy, especially through his efforts to crack down on protests and government critics, weaken anticorruption institutions and unravel the rule of law. His failure to deal with the Democratic Party situation would only prove that his critics were right about him.

The author is a columnist at The Jakarta Post. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

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