PAN leader Zulkifli Hasan, Golkar chief Airlangga Hartarto and PPP leader Suharso Monoarfa formally launch the United Indonesia Coalition (KIB) on 4 June. Photo by Rivan Awal Lingga for Antara.

The 2024 presidential election is still 18 months away, but political elites in Jakarta are already preoccupied with backroom political dealing and manoeuvring ahead of the vote.

Five main figures are currently considered to have a viable shot at securing a presidential nomination: former presidential contender and current Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto; Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo; Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan; West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil; and House of Representatives (DPR) Speaker Puan Maharani.

The three governors – Anies, Ganjar, and Ridwan – have consistently appeared among the most popular prospective candidates in opinion polls since 2020. But while all three enjoy popular support, none have guaranteed support from political parties in the DPR.

According to Indonesian election laws, to nominate a presidential candidate, political parties must have secured at least 20% of seats in the 2019-2024 DPR, or 25% of the total vote. Given the highly fragmented nature of the Indonesian party system, most parties need to form a coalition with two or three other parties to pass this threshold. This has contributed to the formation of “rainbow coalitions” of multiple parties without any coherent ideology or clear policy platform.

The threshold rule also favours candidates who are party elites, or at least enjoy “insider” status within established parties. For example, Puan has received disastrous polling figures but is still a serious contender because she is the heir apparent to her mother, Megawati Soekarnoputri, former president and long-time chief of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which holds 22.3% of seats in the DPR.

Meanwhile, Prabowo, the founder and undisputed leader of the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), should have little trouble securing a nomination. His party secured 13.6% of DPR seats in 2019 and he should be able to find enough support from other parties to get across the threshold.

However, prospective candidates with no party affiliation cannot run as independents. Instead, they must convince one or more parties to back them, and that means there is only room for a few additional nominations. As political alliances begin to take shape, it is looking increasingly likely that Indonesia will see a four-ticket race.

The only party with enough seats in the DPR to nominate its own presidential candidate is PDI-P. Central Java Governor Ganjar is a PDI-P member, and he is currently sitting atop recent reputable polls. But party chair Megawati looks like she will insist on nominating her daughter Puan, against the wishes of many of PDI-P’s rank-and-file members, who prefer Ganjar. It seems unlikely that Ganjar will quit the party of his own accord, but if Megawati’s daughter is nominated, he will be free to pursue other options.

One of the most likely of these is with the United Indonesia Coalition (KIB). One of the first political party alliances announced, the three-party KIB was formed by Golkar and the Islam-based National Mandate Party (PAN), and United Development Party (PPP) in May. Given that these parties together hold more than 25% of seats in the DPR, this coalition is considered an important player.

The two Islam-based parties collected only a small proportion of the vote in 2019 – PAN with 7.7% of seats and PPP 3.3% of seats. Their prospects in the 2024 election are expected to be even bleaker. Given the 4% legislative threshold, it is possible that at least one of the parties – if not both – will no longer be eligible to sit in the DPR after the election.

However, Golkar has the second largest number of seats in the DPR (14.8% seats). Its problem is that it lacks a high-profile prospective party candidate. Although Golkar Party Chair Airlangga Hartarto has appeared keen to run, he consistently ranks poorly in most reliable polls taken over the past year, and so the KIB coalition is likely to seek a more popular candidate elsewhere.

Although its members have thus far been relatively vague about which candidate it will support, it is widely believed KIB would like to back Ganjar (presuming he is eventually released from PDI-P), possibly paired with Airlangga as vice presidential candidate.

Another confirmed alliance has formed between Prabowo’s Gerindra and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)-linked National Awakening Party (PKB). The NU leadership is widely considered to be closely aligned to Jokowi, as indicated by the recent appointment of Yaqut Cholil Qoumas as minister of religious affairs (Yaqut is the younger brother of NU chair Yahya Cholil Staquf). However, PKB’s long-term chair, Muhaimin Iskandar, is from a rival NU faction to the NU chair.

Muhaimin’s move to form an alliance between PKB and Gerindra is therefore seen as a move to signify to his NU rival Yahya that he is capable of securing political patronage from a source other than Jokowi, hence ensuring his long-term political relevance and survival. If this alignment holds, it will likely result in a Prabowo-Muhaimin pairing.

The final party grouping that is beginning to solidify involves the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the nationalist-leaning Democrat Party and the National Democrats (Nasdem). PKS and the Democrat Party are the only two parties in the DPR that are not members of Jokowi’s supersized ruling coalition. But combined they only hold 18.1% of seats, which is not enough to nominate a presidential candidate on their own. They have therefore teamed up with Nasdem, which secured 10.3% of seats in 2019.

While the three parties have yet to show strong support for any candidate, it is widely believed that they will eventually become an electoral vehicle for Jakarta Governor Anies. Like the two other alliances, this grouping includes nationalist and Islamic parties, which would support Anies’s efforts to rebrand himself as a “technocratic and politically moderate” governor.

This rebranding is necessary because Anies has long been associated with the conservative Islamists who led huge public demonstrations in 2016 and 2017 and backed his successful effort to replace former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017. Over the past year, Anies has gradually distanced himself from the more controversial groups that once backed him, such as the outlawed Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and sought support from mainstream Islamic groups.

Many party elites have expressed a desire to move beyond the religious polarisation that has been so corrosive to Indonesia’s democracy over the past decade. But with a lack of distinctive policy or ideological differences between the four leading candidates, there are real risks that Indonesia will again see some form of “manufactured” polarisation, whether based on religious identity or some other societal cleavage. For example, polarisation between supporters and opponents of Jokowi shows no sign of waning (as seen in recent opinion surveys and online discussions about the capital city relocation project), and could be a concern if support from pro- or anti-Jokowi camps flows to particular candidates.

In any case, the race for 2024 is already in high gear. Political manoeuvring between the different parties will continue over the next year, and some of the initial alliances made will no doubt be broken before the list of candidates is finally declared in September 2023.

However, exactly who makes the final list will clearly be determined by party leaders and other political elites, and not the voters. The political establishment has absolute control over the candidate selection process and will engage in “promiscuous power-sharing” deals to select their candidates. Ordinary Indonesians, who are not able to nominate alternative candidates to those nominated by the parties, will again be the losers in the current electoral system.

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