A critical question in Indonesian politics is who the incumbent President Joko Widodo will choose as his vice-presidential running mate in the April 2019 presidential election. Although the office of Indonesian vice president has little power (even less so than the U.S. vice presidency), Widodo’s choice will be meaningful.
The decision — which must be made before an Aug. 10 deadline — will affect domestic and international perceptions of the administration, with the potential candidates including a prominent party leader, a foreign-educated regional governor, and an Islamic scholar. Widodo’s choice may also render the nominee a contender for president in 2024, when term limits would bar 57-year-old Widodo from running again.
Less important would be the effect on Widodo’s own electoral prospects. At this point, the incumbent has a huge lead. His only potential opponent with any significant popularity is former Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, whom Widodo defeated at the polls in 2014.
Recent elections in Asia and beyond have produced unexpected outcomes, notably in Malaysia, where voters yearned for change from the long-ruling Barisan Nasional government.
But Indonesian voters still overwhelmingly back Widodo. A survey in May conducted by the nonpartisan Indonesian Institute of Sciences showed that Widodo’s support stood at 58% against 27% for Prabowo, with 15% undecided. Other polls suggest similar results. Prabowo could possibly still make up ground — but his support has long remained static and less than nine months before the presidential election, he has yet to find a message that resonates with voters.
Widodo has been criticized for presiding over economic growth that has failed to lift lower incomes or create enough job opportunities: Over 25 million live below a poverty line of approximately $1 per capita daily income — and a similar number are barely above it, while formal-sector jobs employ a mere 41% of the working-age population (a ratio that has been virtually static for five years).
However, Widodo has received high marks for building infrastructure and upgrading social services. More importantly, he has remained free from any taint of scandal for four years and counting, despite the country’s entrenched patronage-style politics.
As a result, Widodo enjoys the luxury of being able to select the vice president of his choice. To be sure, parties nominate tickets, but Widodo’s popularity gives him strong bargaining power with the six established parties backing his re-election. He is free to choose on criteria such as integrity, experience and competence. Widodo’s situation is similar to the 2009 re-election bid of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who gave the vice-presidential nomination to the respected Bank Indonesia governor, Boediono.
Widodo might opt for a similar choice in the recently retired central bank governor, Agus Martowardojo, an accomplished former state banker and finance minister with an impeccable governance record. But his name has not yet been mentioned in the media or by Widodo’s aides.
Instead, the president seems to be basing his decision on party political factors. Widodo has said that his preferred vice-presidential nominee is the incumbent, Jusuf Kalla, a former chair of Golkar, the ruling party of the Suharto era of the late 20th century. This reflects Kalla’s acceptance by the political elite, including most of the pro-Widodo parties.
The aging Sulawesi native would have poor prospects for winning the presidency in 2024, and therefore is not viewed as a realistic threat to party chairs who covet the presidency for themselves. As a tycoon under President Suharto, Kalla is also amenable to influential business interests.
But constitutional term limits would prevent Kalla from serving a third term as vice-president since as well as his current term he also held the post under Yudhoyono from 2004 to 2009. His supporters are challenging the term limits in the Constitutional Court in a move that Widodo has tacitly condoned.
However, given Indonesia’s history of authoritarianism, term limits are seen as a pillar of democracy, and tampering with them to renominate Kalla would be a blunder for Widodo. Opponents would relish the opportunity to argue that Widodo lacks respect for democratic principles. In any event, the court may be unable to render a verdict before the Aug. 10 deadline for registering presidential tickets.
When recently asked by journalists about his “short list” of vice-presidential nominees, Widodo confirmed it would include Golkar Chair Airlangga Hartarto. But leaders of the largest pro-Widodo party, PDI-Perjuangan, reject Hartarto since Golkar is a rival.
In addition, the independent Anti-Corruption Commission has arrested a prominent Golkar lawmaker and is questioning the party’s former secretary-general, Social Affairs Minister Idrus Marham. If the case taints Golkar, it would further weaken Hartarto’s prospects.
Widodo also said he is considering West Nusa Tenggara Gov. Zainul Majdi. He is a multi-faceted candidate since he is foreign-educated, has been elected governor twice, and is an Islamic cleric whose grandfather founded the largest religious organization on the island of Lombok. Widodo may believe that Majdi’s religious credentials would help win support from politically vocal Islamic groups, especially after their blasphemy campaign last year against the then-Jakarta governor and Widodo ally, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.
However, given Widodo’s wide poll lead, no pressing need exists for making concessions to fringe elements. Contrary to perceptions, grass roots support for “Islamicization” is weak. Polls show that support for Islamic-oriented parties has weakened considerably. The 17 gubernatorial elections in June lacked any overt Islamic dynamics.
Catering to a narrow segment of the public is unnecessary. It may even backfire. In a diverse electorate, picking a cleric for vice president might alienate minorities and those in the moderate mainstream. Moreover, an anti-corruption investigation may imperil Majdi’s prospects as it examines how his provincial administration handled proceeds from a mine divestment.
As a compromise candidate, Widodo could turn to another figure he has mentioned: the former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mahfud Mahmodin. An Islamic scholar with ties to Indonesia’s main Muslim organization, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama, Mahfud combines religious credentials with a long political resume. His economic views, however, espouse heavy state intervention, which could unnerve investors. Although the vice presidency lacks power, Mahfud would be close to the presidency and could be a presidential contender in 2024, which might cloud the outlook for long-term investments.
Widodo might also select an unexpected candidate from smaller, neutral parties, such as Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono of Partai Demokrat or Muhaimin Iskandar of the National Awakening Party. Widodo is expected to announce his decision close to the Aug. 10 deadline. Once his choice is made, the political losers will scramble to form one or two opposing tickets.
But, whatever they do, Widodo’s re-election seems virtually assured, barring a major scandal or an economic crisis. His choice of a running mate will primarily matter more for Indonesia’s prospects in the post-Widodo era.