Indonesia towards 2014: the End of Political Oligarchy?

published in Tempo Magazine (English edition), special double edition, December 23, 2013-January 5, 2014.


Indonesia towards 2014: the End of Political Oligarchy?

Philips Vermonte, Head – Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)


The 2014 election is fast approaching. Analyses or, to put it more aptly, speculation about the country’s next leader is also taking shape. Various public opinion surveys have now established that Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, would win if the election was held today.

The latest data from CSIS’ twice-a-year survey that was published in November 2013 suggests that there are strong currents flowing in support of the Jakarta governor. CSIS’ November survey revealed,  that, in comparison to its May 2013 survey, support for Jokowi, as he is called, had increased by six percent while most of other presidential aspirants seemed to loose support. Only Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar and Wiranto of the Hanura party were able to strengthen their base of support. The survey found that there is a two percent increase for Aburizal Bakrie and 3.8 percent for Wiranto from the May survey. Jokowi’s strongest contender now is Prabowo Subianto, the former military general, whose support for him started to crumble after Jokowi’s election as Jakarta governor last year.

Jokowi has been able to garner support across the board. His support base is gradually widening. The CSIS November survey found that his source of support was mainly from PDI-P supporters. About 64 percent of the respondents who said that they would vote for PDI-P in 2014 said that they would vote for Jokowi. Meanwhile, approximately 43 percent of the Democrat party voters said that they would vote for the governor. As for Golkar and Gerindra, the numbers of their supporters who switched to Jokowi were 23 and 21 percent respectively.

From the figures above, we can see an almost unstoppable support from voters from different political parties towards Jokowi. His support base from PDI-P voters in the previous survey was 52 percent, while among the Gerindra voters the support for Jokowi significantly increased from 13 percent to 21 percent, which implies that some of Prabowo’s voters switched to Jokowi, abandoning the former Special Forces general.

In sum, we see a widening gap between Jokowi and other presidential candidates the closer we come to the 2014 election.

This writing, however, is not about Jokowi per se. One cannot fail to see that there is a significant difference between the top contenders of the upcoming presidential election, which is about the “ownership” of the parties. Prabowo and Wiranto, for example, are the founders and hence the owners of their respective parties. They are the oligarchs of the political parties. But Jokowi is not one of them.  

Jokowi is just a regular member of the PDI-P. With such a high level of public support for Jokowi, we can safely say that Jokowi enjoys support from different walks of life, from both the elite and non-elite members of the Indonesian electorate.

In terms of democratic consolidation, this phenomenon gives us a little sign that political parties’ oligarchic practices probably now is ceasing to exist. Indonesia has started the democratization processes and various reform initiatives have taken place since 1999. The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) have more or less returned to their barracks as the political reform dismantles their social and political dual functions. Indonesia’s press is one of the freest in the world, something unimaginable during the New Order era.The reform has also brought in a number of new business players, previously tightly controlled by a small number of elites, i.e. conglomerates. This is not to say that the country’s economy is no longer controlled by certain powerful conglomerates, but at the very least the barrier to entry is not as high asbefore.

Yet, one important area that has not been touched upon is the heart where all the political processes start out: the way our political parties operate remains the same. The parties have not been internally democratized. Decision making processes within parties continue to be controlled by a small group of powerful men and women, the party oligarchs. The power to nominate candidates lies within this small circle.

The PDI-P is our democratic test as Jokowi changes all political equations. In fact, the PDI-P has taught the country one important lesson in electoral politics. It demonstrated that being outside the power for two electoral cycles – they lost in the 2004 and 2009 elections – does not mean that the party should stagnate. On the contrary, the PDI-P has shown that being an opposition party is the new norm and that it can regain later. That is what electoral politics is all about: if one loses an election, re-group and re-focus and do the political homework.

What the PDI-P is enjoying right now is the fruit of the party’s strong determination to be an opposition party for the past ten years. Today, the party prides itself in its young and bright cadres who hold various important public positions. To name a few: Jokowi as the governor of Jakarta, Ganjar Pranowo in the Central Java Province, and Tri Rismarini, the phenomenal mayor of Surabaya City in East Java province. This, in my view, comes as a result of PDI-P’s national leadership’s bold decision not to join the “maximum-winning-coalition” formed by President SBY.

As a result, the PDI-P and Jokowi are now able to position itself as an alternative to the incumbent party and the member of the party coalition.

Ironically, Jokowi, regardless of the huge support from the people outside PDI-P’s elites, may not be on the ballot if the party elites decide not to nominate him and choose someone else. In this case, Jokowi is a case study of whether or not the voice of the elite really coincides with the voice of the people as a true democracy should. If not, then what we will have is a disconnection between the elites and the people and the party oligarchs, not only inside PDI-P but also within other parties. The PDI-P has the chance to teach the country yet another lesson.

Outside the PDI-P, another sign that the domination of the party oligarchs is crumbling can also be seen. The Democratic Party convention shows a democratic opening within the party. The convention allows some rooms for figures who are not part of the party elites. Critics attacked the motive behind the decision to hold such a convention. However, I am of the opinion that the point is not necessarily the motivation of the Democrat Party elites in deciding to have such a convention. What’s important is the precedent it carries for Indonesian politics. That is, not long from now all parties must find some way to select and elect their presidential candidates in open processes.

Therefore, this “crack” within the “oligarchic wall” must be pushed further for the next generation of politicians to shatter that wall. The nation is waiting, the voters are watching.

A quote from Hillary Clinton is relevant here. In her famous concession speech in 2008 as she lost the Democrat primary to Barrack Obama, Clinton eloquently explained her heroic electoral fights in the male-dominated political processes to her 18 million or so mostly female supporters: “Although we were not able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it…. The path will be easier next time”.


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