Wanted: a perfect pair

Wanted: a perfect pair

Incumbent Joko Widodo and other presidential contenders search for running mates who could help ensure victory in next year's elections.

Indonesians are holding their breath as political bigwigs huddle behind the scenes with counterparts from other parties, traditionally allied or not, in a delicate game of matchmaking. Their goal: to create the ideal pairings of presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the 2019 elections.

President Joko Widodo is poised to run for a second term on the ticket of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Although he remains the most popular candidate, benefiting from his position as incumbent, victory is far from assured as his popularity rating has slipped below 50%. Picking the right vice-presidential candidate will be crucial to improve his chances of being re-elected to serve until 2024.

The president has said that he has five candidates on his personal shortlist and expected to announce his running mate "at the right time", as he and PDI-P are still in consultation with parties that have declared their support for him.

The "right time" could be any time after Mr Widodo's main challenger and the runner-up in the 2014 poll, retired general Prabowo Subianto, announces his pick for vice-presidential candidate, or before the Aug 10 deadline to register names of candidates for the top two posts with the national elections commission.

"There were 10 names but we have narrowed them down to five. Please be patient, it's still [three] weeks away. [The candidate] could be a party or non-party cadre, a professional, a civilian, or could be from police or military. We are still finalising it, processing it, we can't disclose it until it's final," Mr Widodo told the media at the Istana Negara last Wednesday.

In a country where a leader's religious credentials are still considered important, a survey conducted by the pollster KedaiKOPI showed that almost half of respondents think Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto, who are both Muslims, are still not "religious enough", despite the former's strong efforts to boost his Islamic credentials by befriending influential Muslim groups and clerics and various visits to Islamic boarding schools across the country.

In the survey of 1,148 respondents in 10 provinces with the highest numbers of voters, 47.8% replied that they would vote for the incumbent if an election were held today, while 24.4% chose his main rival.

The survey also found that 49.8% respondents said their main consideration when selecting a presidential and vice-presidential candidate is personality and character.

KedaiKOPI founder Hendri Satrio told Asia Focus that respondents think of President Widodo as populist, good-humoured and cordial, and they view Mr Subianto as knowledgeable, firm and high-spirited. However, both candidates scored low on being seen as religious.

Therefore, he said, it would be important for each man to pick a running mate who could help close the perception gap when it comes to religious values.

"It is correct if Jokowi thinks that a santri would be required as a vice-presidential candidate, because that is what he needs," Mr Satrio said, referring to the president by his nickname. A santri is a student or graduate of a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school in Indonesia.

A KedaiKOPI researcher, Kunto Adi Wibowo said that respondents take the vice-presidential candidate as an important consideration in choosing a president, with 53.3% saying it would factor in their votes.

The pollster's survey showed that West Nusa Tenggara Governor Muhammad Zainul Majdi -- better known by his nickname Tuan Guru Bajang or TGB and a santri as well -- is the most popular santri vice-presidential candidate with 34.1%, while other santri figures who are top politicians and clerics trailed with less than 30% and below.

"Widodo needs only to add 2% (to be re-elected) based on our survey and if he picks the right santri figure, he would have a better chance," Mr Satrio said.

TGB has recently declared his support for President Widodo to run for a second term, despite the official stance of his Democratic Party led by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The Democratic Party has not made an official declaration yet for next year's elections, as it is also busy promoting Mr Yudhoyono's first son, 40-year-old Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, and courting various parties to pick the former Jakarta governor candidate as a young, up-and-coming potential leader.

Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a political researcher with the Indonesia Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said that as the incumbent, Mr Widodo has the advantage of being able to tap extensive political resources to bolster his popularity.

"It would be possible that in the next six months to a year, we will see the current administration issuing populist policies," Mr Jati told Asia Focus.

Emrus Sihombing, a political scientist at the postgraduate school of Universitas Pelita Harapan in Jakarta, also believes the president will seek to raise his popularity, electability and acceptability by issuing more populist policies.

"And so far only PDI-P and its coalition partners have formed a solid coalition. Mr Subianto's Gerindra Party is still not set with its current ally the Prosperous Justice Party or PKS, which looks like it is still weighing whether to support Gerindra," Mr Sihombing told Asia Focus.

The Islam-based PKS has repeatedly said that Mr Subianto has to pick a vice-presidential candidate from the party in order to secure its support, but such a condition could be problematic for the former military man if he wants to win the presidency on his second attempt.

Mr Jati said that given the dynamic and fluctuating nature of Indonesian politics, there would always be surprising and unexpected developments and these have always been determinants when fixing on a political pairing.

"There is a possibility for a third axis and the voters will have another option so they will not be as polarised as in 2014, even though so far we only seem to have two contenders," he told Asia Focus.

For the most part, he said, Indonesian voters are not always as statistically predictable as surveys show. He pointed to last year's campaign for Jakarta governor when the controversial incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was leading the polls but eventually lost.

What President Widodo needs in a running mate is someone who is a slick political lobbyist and a political heavyweight, given his own relatively weak position in the party's central structure despite being the party's political symbol, Mr Jati said.

"The long, historically tried-and-tested formula for presidential and vice-presidential candidate -- Java-non Java, politician-technocrat or politician-former military member -- would again apply this time," he added.

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