Hounded by his rival, Indonesia's new president faces test of principles

Former Gen. Prabowo Subianto's coalition could control as much as 60 percent of parliament when new members are sworn in Oct. 1, setting up a showdown with reformist president-elect Joko Widodo. 

Tatan Syuflana/AP/File
Supporters of Indonesian losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto stage a protest outside the Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Indonesia's Constitutional Court on Wednesday began hearing a challenge to the result of the country's July 9 presidential election, which ended in victory for Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo.

The reform-minded Jakarta governor Joko Widodo won a decisive victory in this summer's presidential election – but his defeated opponent, a former general under the dictatorial Suharto regime, isn't going quietly. 

By assembling a majority coalition in the incoming parliament, Prabowo Subianto – once a son-in-law of Suharto – is working steadily to undermine the president-elect. This weekend, Mr. Subianto was elected chairman of his political party Gerindra. 

On paper, Subianto's so-called “Red and White Coalition,” cobbled together before the July presidential election, will control more than 60 percent of seats in Indonesia's new parliament when members elected in April take their seats on Oct 1. That could create a significant roadblock for Mr. Widodo, who needs political support to push through big reforms he has promised, including building new infrastructure, cutting expensive fuel subsidies, and improving public services. 

The political maneuverings are also a test for Widodo's ability to break the mold of corrupt, patronage-based politics in Southeast Asia's largest economy. As Jakarta governor he enjoyed a squeaky clean reputation – but as president-elect he is already finding himself pressured to dole out jobs to break Subianto's hold. In the run-up to the election, his relative inexperience allowed Subianto to claw his way back from a 30-point deficit in the polls to make it a tighter race. 

The six-party opposition bloc has notched some wins, including changing how the House of Representatives chooses its speaker. The position used to go to a member from party with the most seats. But rather than going to Widodo’s Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which won the most seats in April, it will be an elected post. The amendment was passed in July, although it carries more symbolic weight than legislative authority. 

Allies of Subianto’s Gerindra party in Jakarta’s local legislature have also held up Widodo’s resignation as governor – a prerequisite before he can be sworn in on Oct 20. 

Coalition cracks?

However, cracks are already opening in Subianto's parliamentary bloc. In one of the linchpin parties, Golkar – the ruling party during Suharto's 33-year dictatorship – deputies are in open mutiny against its chairman. Other coalition members may be ready to jump ship, and even Subianto’s former running mate is wavering: Widodo has said the pair have been in talks.

What’s more, most Indonesian political parties have little or no interest in being in opposition; few are willing to pass up the chance to be in government where they can spread patronage, the traditional grease of Indonesian politics. 

Widodo said he would almost evenly split cabinet posts between professional politicians and technocrats, much as the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has done. Before the election, Widodo had promised portfolios would only go experts in their respective fields. 

“It’s way too soon to say whether the coalition will last,” says Jakarta-based Andrew Thornley, program director at the Asia Foundation. “Indonesia has no tradition of strong opposition coalitions."

Most parties in parliament can usually be brought into the fold with a plum appointment that gives their leadership a say in government policy and a chance to spreadlargess to supporters, Mr. Thornley said. 

Subianto's standing with the public is in doubt, too. In late August, tens of thousands of riot police and military mobilized to counter his supporters and thugs, some of whom tried to storm the Constitutional Court as its nine justices unanimously ruled against his appeal that he lost the July 9 vote because of “massive” and “systemic” fraud. But only a few thousand of his supporters turned out to protest. 

Even if Subianto's coalition splinters, Widodo can expect no honeymoon in parliament, says Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former Suharto-era cabinet minister who now works at the public affairs think tank Transformasi.

By most accounts Prabowo has spent much of the past decade laying the groundwork for his failed presidential bid. Should Widodo prove weak, Prabowo may well try to rally parties to impeach him on spurious grounds, Mr. Susumaatmadja says. 

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