Pathways to a People’s President

Mar 05, 2012

If Indonesians are going to find a candidate to oppose the oligarchs, they need to start organising now.

First, let’s imagine that the disappointed and apathetic components of civil society could mobilise quickly and hold a ‘People’s Congress’, or some similar event. This congress could have one simple agenda item: to form a broad social coalition, based on compromise and shared goals, that supports one alternative presidential packet. A single candidate for president, and a single running mate for vice-president. They would be declared the People’s Candidates. To win this backing, each candidate would present their ‘People’s Agenda’ to the congress, debate with each other, and respond to comments and questions from the delegates. And then the delegates would vote until they reached a winning duet.

Although the media are owned by oligarchs and focus exclusively on mainstream candidates, they could be shamed into giving the congress full coverage. But alternative media outlets like facebook and twitter could also be used extensively. A People’s Congress would give the presidential packet much higher visibility and legitimacy.

This would set in motion the second step, which is having these candidates show up as credible alternatives in various political polls by 2013. Such polls are 80 per cent a matter of face-name recognition (especially when there are still many candidates), and 20 per cent political identity or sentiment. The challenge for leaders in civil society after leaving the congress would be to go back to their thousands of organisations and actively promote the People’s Candidates. They would not have to do as partisans. Indeed, many NGOs are explicitly forbidden to endorse political parties and candidates. They could attend the congress and follow up on its results as private members of civil society.

What about party backing? After all, this is the key to becoming a valid candidate on the ballot according to Electoral Commission rules. Here the opening is far greater than most imagine. Although the thresholds of 20 per cent of DPR seats or 25 per cent of the national vote will be higher in 2014, there will still be smaller parties searching for a way to have an impact.

The elections of 2004 and 2009 show that the smaller parties are incapable of spontaneously agreeing on an alternative candidate (and they are offered cash and other political crumbs by the major parties at the last moment to ensure they fragment rather than unite). A very different dynamic could unfold if a People’s Candidate were available in advance for them to support jointly.

Also, there could be several big wildcards up for grabs in 2014. PDI-P (Indonesia Democracy Party- Struggle), led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, and PKB (National Awakening Party), the party founded by former president, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, both now have serious candidate vacuums. The media magnate Suryo Paloh and his NasDem party could make a surprising move to block Golkar or Partai Demokrat.

It is unlikely that Megawati wants to endure the indignity of a third consecutive rejection from the voters. And her daughter, Puan Maharani, whose only qualification is genetic, has weak support inside PDI-P and even less across society. PDI-P desperately needs a popular candidate to regain its momentum as the nationalist party closest to the average Indonesian.

Escaping mediocrity

A chorus of lament can be heard across Indonesia about the candidates that are emerging for 2014. Intellectuals are disgusted. Average citizens have tuned out the nonsense. Students swing from anger to apathy. One burned himself to death in front of the Presidential Palace at the end of 2011. Even the business community is unenthusiastic about the choices on the horizon, and some oligarchs privately wish leaders could emerge who would make major breakthroughs on things like corruption and the rule of law.

The challenge for activists in civil society is to convert this groundswell of criticism, disappointment, and apathy into alternatives, energy, and hope. The indications are strong that the Indonesian people are hungry for new leadership and would embrace it if given a realistic alternative.

The scenario sketched above is just one pathway by which such an alternative might emerge. But if organising started immediately, a People’s Congress could be achieved before the end of 2012. This is still early enough for a People’s Candidate to gain momentum in 2013 and pose a serious challenge for the presidency in 2014. Pulling this off would represent a major challenge – but also a major breakthrough – for progressive forces.

Jeffrey A. Winters researches and teaches at the Department of Politics, Northwestern University, Chicago.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.