Jakarta. The decision by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party to officially back presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto reflects the progress that Prabowo has made in the past two months to improve his electability.
There is a reason why, over the years, Yudhoyono has been dubbed as the “thinking general” by the media. He has made what can be viewed as calculated and well thought-out maneuvers.
Vice President Boediono knows this well. He once made public that the reason why Yudhoyono picked him as a running mate was because his name came at the top of a survey ran by Saiful Mujani at Yudhoyono’s request. The polling sought to find out which running mate would maximize Yudhoyono’s electability in the 2009 presidential election.
Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party announced at its national meeting in May that they would be neutral during the election, meaning they would support neither Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo nor Prabowo, a former general.
Taking into account that Yudhoyono is keen to make decisions based on data and supporting evidence, one can safely argue that the reason why he did not choose to support Prabowo at an earlier point was because Prabowo’s chances of winning appeared slim, compared to Joko’s, who was leading in polls. Never mind that Hatta Rajasa, Yudhoyono’s in-law, is Prabowo’s vice presidential running mate.
On the other hand, Yudhoyono’s effort to lobby Megawati Soekarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), to be part of the coalition that backed Joko were not successful.
“In my opinion, his political communication with Megawati failed. Sometime ago, SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] has given a signal to the PDI-P and especially to Megawati, that they [the Democratic Party] are willing to join hands with the PDI-P,” Phillips Vermonte, a political analyst from the Center of Strategic and International Studies told the Jakarta Globe on Friday.
Additionally, Yudhoyono and Megawati hold a grudge against each other.
Nearing the 2004 election, it was reported that Megawati gathered her ministers to ask if any one of them was considering to run for the presidential election.
Yudhoyono — who then served as the coordinating minister for politics and social and security affairs — did not tell Megawati about his wish to run for president. But Yudhoyono would later run for president, and he won eventually, defeating Megawati. Megawati’s aides disclosed that she was not pleased with this incident.
The aversion to support a candidate with a slim chance of winning and the failure to gain favor from a winning side at that point, led to his declaration of neutrality in May. So what has changed since then?
Prabowo’s electability has improved rapidly as shown in various surveys. Prabowo’s unprecedented rise gave the thinking general the confidence to support him.
As such, the Democratic Party announced on Monday that it would be abandoning its earlier commitment of neutrality in the 2014 presidential election to throw its support behind the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) party candidate.
“The Democratic Party decided and instructed all its members, supporters and associated organizations across Indonesia to fully support and vote for Prabowo-Hatta at the presidential election,” party chairman Syarief Hasan said at a press conference in Jakarta.
Senior party officials Jero Wacik, E.E. Mangindaan, Amir Syamsuddin, Roy Suryo and Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono were present at the press conference. “This is our official stance,” Syarief said.
Some would say that with the Democratic Party — with Yudhoyono as its leader — officially backing Prabowo, that gives him a better chance at winning the presidential election on Wednesday.
Prabowo’s success in branding himself as a firm leader — thanks to his savvy, long-running campaigns — and the solid political machine in the form of established political parties backing him up are considered as twin reasons behind Prabowo’s ability to close the gap on Joko.
Aleksius Jemadu, a political analyst from Pelita Harapan University (UPH), attributed Prabowo’s growing popularity to his campaign team’s aggressive moves.
“His message is quite effective, a firm, nationalist leader who wants to improve Indonesia’s dignity,” Aleksius said.
Indonesians long for firm leaders, Aleksius said, while noting that the general public presently perceived the current president, Yudhoyono, as prone to vacillation. Hence it is only to be expected that many voters prefer a figure that exudes a stronger character in the coming election, he said.
“Prabowo fulfills the public longing for a firm leader, and that affects voters,” Aleksius said.
Prabowo has successfully branded himself as a firm and brave leader, an ex-military general who will not hesitate to make difficult choices.
“Meanwhile, that image does not exist for Joko. He is more of a humble leader,” Aleksius said.
Further, Prabowo has the backing of some of the most solid political parties in Indonesia. The Golkar Party, which has never been in the opposition since its founding as former dictator Suharto’s political vehicle, has thrown its considerable regional network behind the former general.
The relatively new Islamist party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), is one of several key parties supporting Prabowo’s presidential bid.
On the other hand, various negative and smear campaigns targeted at Joko have hurt his electability considerably.
Rumors about Joko being a mere “puppet” to Megawati, being a closet Christian, being of a Chinese descent and him being affiliated with communist elements are afloat in the archipelago.
Joko’s team asked the police in June to arrest the publisher of a little-known tabloid after it falsely reported that the Muslim governor from the Javanese city of Solo was an ethnic Chinese Christian.
A National Police spokesman said authorities were investigating the case against Obor Rakyat, or People’s Torch, a newspaper available in Islamic boarding schools and mosques in Central and East Java.
Joko has been forced to defend himself against the attacks, which are mainly focused on his race and religion — potent topics in a country that is 95 percent native Indonesian and has the world’s largest Muslim population.
Some opinion polls show that Joko’s once huge lead over Prabowo has shrunk to single digits, a rapid decline that pollsters attribute to a successful smear campaign against the frontrunner ahead of the election.
“People in rural areas and people with middle- to lower-income and education tend to believe the black campaign [against Joko]. That is why the electability of Jokowi is decreasing significantly,” said Burhanuddin Muhtadi, the executive director of pollster Indonesian Political Indicator.
Additional reporting by Vita A. D. Busyra
This article is part of a special coverage on Indonesia’s presidential election.