Commentary: Is President Joko Moving Out From Sukarno's Shadow?

JUNE 08, 2015

Jakarta. Not since 1945 has an Indonesian president been so seemingly misinformed about historical facts than when President Joko Widodo “moved” Sukarno’s birthplace to Blitar from Surabaya.

To cautious political observers, this was neither a slip of the tongue nor an ordinary statement. It must have been an extraordinary move on the political chessboard which requires deep analysis to comprehend.

The efforts of Sukardi Rinakit, the president’s public communications official, to take the blame in Joko’s place are therefore too much of a pain to be convincing. He should have just kept silent so as not to arouse wild speculation.

Such speculation appeared recently in the daily newspaper Republika by its one of its editor who suggested this could have been a deliberate attempt by the president to distance himself from Sukarno’s shadow and may as well be a good way to remedy the assumption of certain quarters of the president having become a puppet for his authoritative party patron Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter.

Earlier this year Jokowi moved his office to the Bogor Palace instead of working from the State Palace in Jakarta, prompting speculation he did this to avoid the Panthéon of Teuku Umar — Megawati’s home.

Officials from Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) immediately fought back, saying that Mega would never interfere with the president’s authority.

Yet not long afterward she issued a strongly worded warning presumably directed at the president that anybody unwilling to follow the party’s hierarchical stipulations had better get out.

This prompted Mega’s daughter Puan Maharani, who is the chief welfare minister, to label President Joko “an assigned executive of the party.” Such terminology effectively means there is a higher authority above President Joko.

In order to eject himself from Sukarno’s shadows and rebuild his reputation as an independent chief executive of the country, Joko needs to appear not too close to Sukarno’s family. He must appear to not know everything about Sukarno’s childhood stories — a good pretext to justify his revelation of the wrong birthplace of the founding president.

This explains the reason why Megawati and Puan, who attended the ceremony in Blitar where the president made the tactical maneuver, responded coolly as if they themselves were wondering why he had pretended to be ignorant about Surabaya instead of Blitar being Sukarno’s actual birthplace.

Thousands of Joko’s volunteers have reportedly issued an ultimatum that if the PDI-P does not wholeheartedly support the president, they will urge him to set up a new party to stand on — prompting even deeper speculation that the relations between the president and the party that gave him the winning presidential ticket are not as smooth as one might have assumed.

On Sunday, sources close to Vice President Jusuf Kalla suggested to the writer that if Kalla were willing to take over former ruling party Golkar’s patronage leadership, Golkar and the PDI-P would form a formidable force that could result in the president being deeply driven at bay.

Against that backdrop, a safe course to pursue is for Joko to re-establish his reputation as a pro-people leader, thereby splitting popular support for the PDI-P to his advantage. This would be the name of his game henceforth.

Here’s a national leader — unlike any of his predecessors — who is engulfed so deeply in an underwater current of power games from which he is trying to get out safely, yet in the absence of wholehearted party support.

And now the political tug-of-war between Joko and Megawati has taken on a new dimension.

The president has made yet another tactical move on the chessboard: announcing his intention to set June 1 as the “birthday” of the state ideology Pancasila, apparently to fulfill incessant pressure from Jalan Teuku Umar and at the same time generate a wave of experts’ protests.

Megawati failed to get this day inaugurated in honor of her father during Suharto’s era and she failed to do so when she was president, but now the intention has re-emerged. To Megawati and Puan, June 1 needs to be declared a national holiday because they believe that was the day Sukarno introduced Pancasila.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono never remembered that day as the Pancasila anniversary; instead, he respected it as the day Sukarno delivered a speech on the subject.

The reason is that as a state ideology the five principles of Pancasila actually manifested themselves in the nation’s life long before they were compiled and proposed by Sukarno. Another reason is that Sukarno’s version of Pancasila as contained in his June 1 speech was not exactly the same as what is today the state ideology.

No wonder that state administrative law expert Yusril Ihza Mahendra rebutted the theory saying that June 1, 1945, wasn’t the day Pancasila was born or made the state’s ideology. The truth is that Sukarno proposed the idea that day but it wasn’t until June 22 that the nine members of the independence preparation committee known as the PPKI agreed on it and only on Aug. 18 was Pancasila officially adopted as the national ideology.

To President Joko, Yusril’s rebuttal chimes well with his perceived intention to “de-sacralize” the veneration of Sukarno, and this widens his corridors for maneuvering away from the first president’s shadows. It also represents a plus point against the Megawati camp.

Putting the ongoing tug-of-war on the national landscape, Megawati has no other opportune time than now to re-establish her party’s reputation based on the charms of its programs and the credibility of its members rather than on the shadows of her late father. She must do it between now and 2020, when her party leadership tenure expires.

But that time span spells a big trap for President Joko unless he can clear himself of the “mega-influence” so that he doesn’t have to rely on a single party’s backing. If he can successfully do it, in 2019 when he seeks re-election, he will be free to determine his own running mate.

By then, because Mega would be too old to either run for presidency or effectively lead the PDI-P hands-on, the party’s most likely candidate to take over from her and run for the number one or number two position would be Puan. She would most likely not be Joko’s first choice for the number two post unless they can honestly come to terms and she can demonstrate some degree of statesmanship to attract public acknowledgement, which is no bed of roses on either side.

Against this backdrop, Joko’s so-called slip of the tongue in Blitar is not really any political incident he should be ashamed of. And the public is too smart to be fooled by Rinakit’s painstaking efforts to take the blame for what Joko has done.

The rough power game will continue but these public figures must remember that people give them trust to occupy those important positions not for their own sake but for the people’s. And I am afraid they don’t care, unfortunately.

Pitan Daslani is director of Managing the Nation Institute in Jakarta. He can be reached at