Zakir Hussain

Indonesia's next V-P will be an old hand

Mr Joko (left) and his running mate Mr Kalla holding Indonesia's national flag during a declaration as presidential and vice-presidential candidates in Jakarta on Monday last week. The next vice-president will be a seasoned politician with much more
Mr Joko (left) and his running mate Mr Kalla holding Indonesia's national flag during a declaration as presidential and vice-presidential candidates in Jakarta on Monday last week. The next vice-president will be a seasoned politician with much more experience compared with the president.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

IN FEBRUARY 2009, two weeks after Mr Joe Biden was sworn in as US President Barack Obama's No. 2, Indonesia's then Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was the first foreign leader to call on him at the White House.

Mr Biden asked after the Indonesian economy, and was told it was in good shape, Mr Kalla recounted to Indonesian reporters accompanying him on the trip.

"In that case, let's just trade places. You be vice-president here and I'll be vice-president in Indonesia," Mr Biden reportedly said.

But a few months after that lighthearted encounter, Mr Kalla was dropped as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's No. 2. Their partnership, marked by increasing friction over Mr Kalla's independent ways, had broken down irretrievably.

Today, five years on, Mr Kalla looks poised to have another go at his old job, this time as running mate to presidential front runner Joko Widodo.

Now 72, he finds himself playing the role Mr Biden had taken on as running mate to Mr Obama - No. 2 to a popular figure 20 years younger campaigning on a message of change but lacking experience on the national stage. Mr Obama and Mr Joko are both 52.

Superficial coincidences aside, will Mr Kalla also play much the same role as Mr Biden if Mr Joko gets elected? A veteran US senator before joining Mr Obama in the White House, Mr Biden has been an active adviser, emissary and troubleshooter, both at home and abroad.

The question arises, of course, about the job scope of Indonesia's vice-president, other than taking over should the president die, be incapacitated or forced out of office, as happened with Suharto and Abdurrahman Wahid.

Should the No. 2 be a mere "spare tyre", standing in for his boss when he is away? Should he simply support the president's decisions, or can he have his say in the running of government? And how much of the limelight should he share?

In other words, is he a chief of staff or a co-captain?

Odd as it may sound, there is not much guidance from history as it has been just 10 years since the first direct presidential election was held. Prior to that, vice-presidents stayed very much in the background.

The question has come to the fore again as it was none other than Mr Kalla who was the deputy to the first directly elected president in 2004, and he was so active that he was dubbed "the real president".

He shrugged off the label by saying he was simply doing his job as "the real vice-president", be it resolving the separatist conflict in Aceh, or getting support for government policies like fuel subsidy cuts at a time when the President's Democratic Party had a much smaller presence in Parliament.

But clearly it was too much for his boss.

"There is a misunderstanding that the vice-president is a co-chairman when he is actually assisting the president who makes all the decisions," Dr Yudhoyono told reporters in 2009. "He must be able to accept that the president is the captain and that the vice-president's role is to assist the president."

For the 2009 election, Dr Yudhoyono chose a steady but low-key technocrat as his running mate - the then Bank Indonesia governor Boediono.

While Dr Boediono is a capable technocrat and there is less friction at the top, analysts say his lack of political weight and assertiveness in defence of government policy has meant that the Yudhoyono administration lacked the dynamism it had in its first term.

With another election looming, it would appear that many Indonesians want a return to the Kalla days; several opinion surveys rank him the best man for the job.

And it may not be a bad thing to have a more assertive vice-president, given the present circumstances.

An important consideration, says political scientist Djayadi Hanan, is the time and energy needed to deal with MPs and party chiefs in Indonesia's lively and demanding multi-party system.

The incoming legislature has even more political parties, and a vice-president who can successfully cajole MPs to support the government's programmes and defend it against attacks would be a great asset to the president.

The dynamics of a Jokowi- Kalla partnership are also expected to be less fraught than that of the Yudhoyono-Kalla team.

Mr Joko, being relatively inexperienced, is more likely to welcome a veteran's guidance and intervention than Dr Yudhoyono, a former general and Cabinet minister before he became President.

Furthermore, it was Mr Kalla who opened the door for him, as it were, to the presidency.

In 2012, Mr Kalla helped persuade Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), to field him, then a little-known mayor, for the Jakarta governor election, giving him a more prominent stage for national politics.

Mr Joko's working relationship with deputy Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama offers a glimpse of how his relationship with Mr Kalla may work out.

Like Mr Kalla, Mr Basuki is a hands-on, forceful No. 2. He and Mr Joko get along well, with Mr Joko playing the good cop to Mr Basuki's table-thumping bad cop in getting things done.

It is less clear how the Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa relationship will work out if they win, as Mr Hatta has not been in the role of vice-president, or worked closely with Mr Prabowo before.

But Mr Hatta brings with him Cabinet and administrative experience that Mr Prabowo, a former general and businessman, lacks.

He has been in Cabinet since 2001, and over the past five years was coordinating economic minister - a role which requires him to oversee key ministries like trade, industry and finance.

He heads a moderate Muslim-based party, the National Mandate Party, and has a reputation for being a calm and persuasive communicator and skilful lobbyist who can work with all sides, factors that made him Mr Prabowo's top choice.

What is certain is that whoever Indonesia's next vice- president is, he will be a seasoned politician with much more experience navigating government as well as the bureaucracy compared with the president.

Tension is inevitable in all partnerships and it will call for compromise, but a self-effacing No. 2 is not likely and not desirable given the many challenges at home and in the region.

Mr Biden's comments in a recent interview with US magazine Politico suggest what might happen.

"When the President asked me what portfolio did I want, I said, 'Base it on what you want of me to help you govern'," he recalled.

"'But I want to be the last guy in the room on every major decision… You're President, I'm not, but if it's my experience you're lookin' for, I want to be the last guy to make the case.'"