Jusuf Kalla (right) is the only person to serve two terms as vice president of Indonesia. Photo by Timothy Tobing.

The recent nomination of Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, as a presidential candidate by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has attracted widespread attention.

Pranowo joins current minister for defence, Prabowo Subianto, as the second figure to be formally nominated as a presidential candidate. Political pundits are now predicting a three-horse race, assuming the current governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, declares his candidacy for the top job, as many expect he will.

The intense speculation and fanfare surrounding presidential nominations can leave the vice-presidential role looking like an afterthought. But vice presidential nominations have historically had a major influence on how presidential campaigns have been conducted and the stability of the resulting government – the upcoming 2024 elections will likely be no different.

Getting into office

The first reason why vice presidents matter is that they can determine whether a president gets elected at all. Presidential candidates are usually selected on their ability to appeal to a core constituency – and so the vice presidential choice is an opportunity for presidential candidates to appeal to voters outside their traditional voter base. A common election strategy is therefore to select running mates based on a candidate’s natural opposite, in an attempt to counter perceived weaknesses in a candidate’s platform.

Conventional wisdom suggests a military candidate’s ideal running mate is a civilian, a political candidate’s best partner is a technocrat, and a Javanese candidate pairs with someone from outside Java. For instance, President Joko Widodo’s decision in 2014 to select Jusuf Kalla, from South Sulawesi, as his running mate provided him with strong results throughout eastern Indonesia, a region which typically lags behind Java on measures of social and economic development.

Similarly, a vice presidential candidate may be selected as a defensive measure against hot button political issues. Indonesia’s voting public have become increasingly polarised in recent times across a secular-nationalist versus religious fault line. While the secular-nationalists still dominate the political arena in Indonesia, there are no guarantees this trend will continue.

These dynamics were on full display in the 2019 general elections, which took place while memory of the 2017 trial and conviction of Jakarta Governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy was still fresh. Widodo’s decision to select the Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate was widely interpreted as a defensive measure against conservative Islamic opposition.

Finally, presidential candidates may also decide to partner with elites in order to gain access to the financial, political or institutional resources required for their campaign. Sandiaga Uno reportedly secured his appointment as Prabowo’s running mate for the 2019 elections after offering to help bankroll his campaign.

Doing something in office

The second reason why vice presidents matter is that they execute real power and help maintain internal political stability.

Presidents are the face of the government and are critical for maintaining a strong relationship with the public. But behind the scenes, vice presidents also play an important role building consensus and holding together a broad coalition of political partners. As an example, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin was charged with using his strong Islamic credentials to manage relationships with religious leaders throughout Indonesia’s response to Covid-19.

Vice presidents also have administrative power. They formally act in the top role when presidents are out of the country or incapacitated. And they can be key contributors to the formulation of public policy. For instance, Vice President Jusuf Kalla was reportedly given a high level of autonomy over economic affairs throughout his partnership with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from 2004 to 2009.

For this reason, the relationship between the president and vice president is central to the effectiveness of government. A souring of relations between the president and vice president can occur because of interpersonal incompatibilities or fractured political coalitions. This can undermine a government’s ability to form consensus and pass legislation. One example is the rift in the Yudhoyono-Kalla team that reportedly emerged over different workstyles and unequal public recognition.

Viewed from this perspective, presidents can be seen as entering a power sharing arrangement with their deputies. This is particularly true when presidential candidates partner with members of elites to access political or financial resources. A presidential candidate’s choice of running mate can therefore be a sign of the candidate’s own autonomy or the extent to which they will be beholden to vested interests.

What does this mean for 2024?

The growing influence of money, political polarisation and the absence of an incumbent candidate all point to a fierce, high stakes contest in the 2024 elections. The field of presidential candidates is crystalising but it is the nomination of vice presidential candidates in the lead-up to the election that will give the best indication of candidate loyalties and tactics.

Because of the power sharing arrangements that exist between presidents and their deputies, candidates need to think long and hard about who they select as their running mate. Partnering with elites offers candidates a greater chance of winning office because of the resources they have at their disposal.

But there is no such thing as a free lunch – elite running mates often come at the expense of presidential autonomy.


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