Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the Philippines President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. at the Bogor Presidential Palace in 5 September 2022. Photo by Press Bureau of Presidential Secretariat.

The Philippines has recently been embroiled in a public political dispute between President Bongbong Marcos Junior and his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, who is also the father of Sara Duterte, the current Vice President. The rift threatens to destabilise the current government, less than two years after the 2022 presidential election.

Several pundits have drawn comparisons between the Prabowo-Widodo and Marcos-Duterte alliances. Jokowi and Duterte are both popular nationalist figures hailing from outside the political establishment, and both have sought to extend their influence beyond constitutionally mandated presidential terms by installing their children as the running mates of establishment presidential candidates.

In fact, the appointment of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka as Prabowo Subianto’s Vice Presidential candidate was a major turning point in the 2024 Indonesian presidential election. After an on-and-off relationship with his party, the Indonesian Democratic Part of Struggle (PDIP), Jokowi leaned towards Prabowo and his party Gerindra.

The political calculus made sense for both parties in the leadup to the election. Through Gibran’s pairing with Prabowo, Jokowi could – in theory – retain influence over policymaking processes during a Prabowo presidency. Meanwhile, Prabowo needed Jokowi and Gibran to get elected – Gibran helped him connect with young people and Jokowi’s endorsement built widespread support for Prabowo’s key policies, such as free lunch and milk for school children.

Gibran, much like Sara Duterte in the Philippines, serves as a symbol of mutual trust between Jokowi and Prabowo for the next five-year administration. But does the recent Duterte-Marcos dispute offer lessons on the long-term viability of these power sharing arrangements? And does it expose possible fault lines to watch out for in the Indonesia context?

What is driving the Marcos-Duterte rift?

In the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos has been determined to rehabilitate his family name after his late father, President Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Senior, was deposed in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Duterte, has been unwilling to retire quietly.

Likewise, Prabowo, dismissed from the Indonesian army for ‘misinterpreting orders’ in 1999, and long accused of serious human rights abuses, has struggled for decades for the reputational vindication the presidency offers. Meanwhile Jokowi, still immensely popular but barred from office by a two-term limit, is clearly reluctant to turn his back on power.

Duterte and Marcos – much like Jokowi and Prabowo – were always strange bed fellows, but few expected the alliance to sour so quickly. One cause of their political rift was the slashing of a confidential budget allocated to the Vice President. This triggered a series sharp criticisms from Rodrigo Duterte directed at Bongbong, including even accusations of drug use, abuse of power, and talk of a Mindanao succession from the Philippines.

The criticisms come after a number of policy reversals since Bongbong Marcos took office, including a pivot from China to a more US friendly foreign policy, and opening the door for the International Court of Justice to investigate the violent anti-drug war initiated by Duterte.

These manoeuvres have angered Rodrigo Duterte who wants to maintain his legacy ahead of the 2025 midterm elections. While the rift between two presidents seems to have cooled for now, it shows how quickly political alliances between former presidents and their successors can fall apart.

Fault lines to watch out for in Indonesia

The Philippines phenomenon may offer lessons  on the future of  the Jokowi-Prabowo alliance. The first lesson is that personalities can play a big role in the stability of political partnerships. Regardless of the talk of ‘special relationships’ prior to election, in the end, power sharing arrangements between influential dynasties can quickly be upended by political egocentrism.

Egocentricism and legacy building could very easily destabilise the Prabowo-Widodo partnership. Personal slights were reportedly the catalyst for the public split between Jokowi and the head of his party, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Moreover, Prabowo – much like Duterte – has a famous temper and is prone to public outbursts.

Prabowo campaigned on a platform to continue the current Jokowi administration’s policy programs, such as the capital city relocation and infrastructure development. Prabowo also borrowed Jokowi’s ’Advanced Indonesia’ vision as the name for his party coalition. Continuing the status quo made sense for Prabowo throughout the election campaign, given Jokowi’s popularity, but as an elected president, Prabowo will surely have his own policies and programs and they are ultimately likely to be his real priority.

Jokowi is taking measures to strengthen the Vice President’s office before the transition to Prabowo, by trying to give the role authority over a new agglomeration council responsible for managing greater Jakarta area after the capital relocation. This suggests that any attempt from Prabowo to wind down the Vice President’s power could result in a rift between Jokowi and Prabowo, just like the one now splitting the Duterte-Marcos alliance in Philippines.

The same geopolitical forces shaping strategic settings in the Philippines also have the potential to divide Prabowo and Jokowi in Indonesia. Jokowi’s international engagement emphasised economic diplomacy and the attraction of foreign direct investment, particularly from China. He made a concerted effort to emphasise neutrality amid rising great power competition between China and the United States.

Prabowo’s foreign policy remains less clear. Certainly, he has pledged to uphold Indonesia’s long-standing principle of non-alignment, however, his fiery brand of nationalism and support for security partnerships with the US could become a flashpoint for tensions with China – and Jokowi.

For5 now, the unlikely bromance between Jokowi and Prabowo still seems to be in good health. Recently, Jokowi awarded Prabowo a honorary four-star general rank – a manoeuvre that drew criticism from civil society activists but undoubtedly pleased Prabowo, a former general who always coveted that extra star.

But it remains to be seen how long this will endure after the inauguration of Prabowo on 20 October 2024.

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