The expression on Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s face as he fronted the media late on 9 August said it all: looking uncomfortable and cheerless, he announced flatly that the nation’s most prominent religious scholar, Ma’ruf Amin, would be his running mate for the April 2019 presidential election.
A short distance from the press conference, a dismayed Mahfud MD, a law professor and former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, who had been, until a few hours before, Widodo’s choice for vice-presidential candidate, was removing the bright-coloured ‘Jokowi’ T-shirt that the palace had asked him to don for what it confidently expected to be his nomination that afternoon.
Ensuing media reporting and commentary were full of accounts of how coalition parties had forced the president to abandon Mahfud at the last moment in favour of Ma’ruf. What should have been a display of political ascendency by an incumbent far ahead in the polls ended up being a humiliating backdown.
To make matters worse, the next day, his presidential rival, Prabowo Subianto, announced Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno as his running mate. Unlike Jokowi, Prabowo had stared down his coalition partners and appointed his preferred candidate from within his own party. In contrast to Jokowi’s vacillation and weakness, Prabowo appeared assured and in control.
How did Jokowi find himself in this position and what does it tell us about his political skills? To begin with, Jokowi, unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prabowo, doesn’t have his own party. He is a member of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P, the largest party at the last election, but it is Megawati rather than him who directs the party and she has often been at loggerheads with the president on senior political appointments and policy issues. In 2014, PDI-P insisted that Jokowi accept Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, against his objections—a development that led to a similar stony-faced announcement that year. Jokowi’s attempts in recent years to use his presidential status to increase his influence over the party have yielded little.
In addition, Jokowi relies on a broad coalition of six parties, including PDI-P, to ensure his healthy parliamentary majority. He has distributed cabinet seats and plum bureaucratic and state-owned enterprise positions to coalition party cadre and benefactors to lock in their support. But as the election has approached, Jokowi has come under growing pressure from several of these parties to choose a vice-presidential candidate from among their ranks. Leading coalition candidates included Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto and PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar. PKB even threatened to split from the coalition if its candidate wasn’t chosen. So not only did Jokowi lack his own dedicated political vehicle, he also had to contend with demands from increasingly fractious coalition partners.
A third factor was Jokowi’s growing sense of vulnerability to attacks from Islamist groups. In the 2014 presidential election, black campaigns accused him of being a foreign-born non-Muslim and tool of anti-Islamic interests, which dented his popularity and contributed to a much closer than expected election outcome. And in 2016–17, his political ally, the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnomo (Ahok), was vanquished after massive protests from Islamic groups during the gubernatorial election. Jokowi fears a repetition of these attacks against him next year.
Despite all of these political pressures, Jokowi had resolved by early August 2018 to select Mahfud. Mahfud was unaligned to any party, had the highest popularity of any of the vice-presidential candidates and was broadly respected across society for his role as a jurist and commentator on legal affairs. If Mahfud had been elected, Jokowi could have relied upon him to make a major contribution to government and to have behaved in a statesman-like manner. He also felt Mahfud had sufficient appeal in the Muslim community to buttress the president’s religious standing.
But nominating Mahfud was a political gamble for Jokowi and one on which he miscalculated. He badly underestimated the resistance of his coalition parties to Mahfud. All parties opposed having a non-party vice-president who might use the position to run for the presidency in 2024, thereby interfering with their plans to nominate their own candidates for that election.
Many of his coalition partners, particularly Golkar and PKB, were also furious at his failure to clearly signal his intentions to them. Airlangga, for example, had been convinced until 9 August that he was Jokowi’s choice. In this regard, Jokowi’s deep aversion to confrontation, and his hope that he could make Mahfud’s nomination a fait accompli by leaving the announcement to the last moment, backfired.
When confronted by angry party chairmen on the afternoon of 9 August, Jokowi panicked and hastily reversed his decision on Mahfud. He was especially alarmed by warnings that the Islamic party PKB, and its main constituent, the 45-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organisation, would withdraw their support for him. That would have imperilled millions of votes in the populous provinces of East and Central Java and left him more exposed to conservative Muslim criticism.
When Muhaimin proposed the name of NU president Ma’ruf Amin as an alternative to Mahfud, Jokowi quickly acceded. Ma’ruf is a conservative Islamic figure with a record of divisive stances on sensitive religious and social issues, but at 76 years of age, he’s unlikely to run in 2024. While Ma’ruf has low popularity as a vice-presidential candidate, he is held in high regard in Islamist circles and would shield Jokowi from attack on Islamic issues.
Opinion polling shows that Ma’ruf’s nomination has slightly reduced Jokowi’s electability, but it has increased the president’s Islamic support. Overall, support for Jokowi and Ma’ruf is almost double that of Prabowo and Sandiaga.
While the selection of Ma’ruf is not without its advantages, Jokowi’s handling of the nomination process exposes a certain lack of political nerve and a sense of susceptibility to coalition demands. If, as appears likely, Jokowi is elected in April 2019, his willingness to buckle to pressure over the past month will undermine his authority and embolden coalition parties in championing their own interests.