Party convention changes Indonesia’s Election

Party convention changes Indonesia’s Election

With the Indonesian presidential elections less than a year away, rumours surrounding prospective candidates have already begun. Of the three big parties – Partai Demokrat (PD), Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDI-P) and Golkar – only Golkar has announced its selected candidate, Aburizal Bakrie – for the upcoming elections. While the PDI-P is caught between having party leader Megawati or popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) run as its candidate, PD has decided to take a different route: to choose its candidate through a convention.

The convention differs from the American equivalent. According to Tempo Magazine, “unlike in the U.S., where participants must be party members, the Democratic Party convention is open to outsiders.” While anyone may register, they “must be examined by a special committee consisting of party members and outside experts.” The participant with the “highest electability level” after a convention survey “conducted by an independent institution hired by the special committee” will be named the candidate by the Democrat Party High Council, which “has the authority to select the presidential candidate.”

While a convention may not strike most observers of American politics as new, this mechanism is still relatively recent in Indonesian politics. A convention has only been employed oncebefore in presidential elections. In 2004, Golkar used an American-style primary to select its presidential candidate. The fact that Golkar has not used conventions in subsequent elections proves that it is still not part of the political norm in Indonesia. Why then has the PD broken away from its usual system of selecting a presidential candidate?

First, unlike previous elections, there is no candidate that all members of PD can agree upon. Due to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) popularity in the party, consensus on his candidacy among members of PD was easy. PD was created by supporters of SBY after his loss to Hamzah Has in the Vice Presidential race of 2001. Since he is now constitutionally barred from running a third term, PD has lost a figure they can easily rally around. The loss of Anas Urbaningrum, former chairman of PD, due to corruption charges also denied the party another figure, who can be readily supported by the party.

Second, most of the names on the list of possible candidates compiled by SBY (who is also the chairman of PD) are not current members of the party, including current Trade Minister Gita Wirajawan. Third, the sudden and recent nomination of Pramono Edhie Wibowo, brother-in-law to SBY, to the position of member of Board of Patrons after his retirement from the military, has given rise to rumours that he is backed by SBY for the candidacy.

A convention thus offers a quick fix to these problems. By opening up the convention to non-PD members, SBY introduces a new source of legitimacy that overcomes the lack of consensus among party members. This allows SBY to limit the influence of faction infighting and money politics within the party, which may otherwise lead to the selection of a candidate palatable to all parties within PD but not popular among the electorate. Amongst all other functions, it provides SBY with a means to legitimise his preferred candidates without giving the impression that decisions are made solely due to an undue influence over PD.

Yet, within the current political context, it is clear  that the primary provides further value to PD. With PD suffering from numerous corruption charges to its members, support for the party has tumbled. Forecasts predict the PD will lose a significant share of its vote to the other two big parties – PDI-P and Golkar – and to the new upstart Gerindra in the upcoming legislative elections (DPR) in April 2014. This convention offers PD an opportunity to reinvent its image in the lead-up to the elections by offering a different narrative for the public to latch onto.

By opening up the convention to non-PD members, an impression that the public is engaged in the selection of the candidates is created. This will make the party seem more accountable and sensitive to the electorate, a definite benefit to a party that is plagued by corruption and a perception of elite-domination in the run-up to legislative elections. But more importantly, opening up the convention to the public allows the PD to trial the electability of its prospective candidates beyond the views of the party members. With this, the PD may be able to plan its strategy for the upcoming presidential elections better. If the convention attracts significant attention and a selected candidate is proven to be popular, this may strengthen PD’s hand if it seeks to run a joint ticket with other parties.

In polls that are described as a “big deal”, the convention by PD may prove to be its smartest move yet in the lead-up to the upcoming DPR and presidential elections.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

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