By Dominic Berger
On April 9, Indonesians voted in their fourth free and fair national election
since the fall of President Suharto in 1998 ended four decades of
authoritarianism. A win for the main opposition party, the PDI-P, was widely
predicted, in large part due the enthusiasm surrounding its popular presidential
candidate, Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi.
In a highly fragmented party system where 12 parties competed for 560 seats
in the House of Representatives, some polls suggested the PDI-P could take close
to 30 per cent of the popular vote. Quick counts on Wednesday suggested the
party fell far short of such predictions, earning the trust of only about 19 per
cent of Indonesian voters.
The dominant reaction to the election so far has been one of surprise and
disappointment that the PDI-P did not earn a stronger mandate for what many
hoped could be a reformist Jokowi-led government. At the same time, concerns
were aired that despite predictions of declining influence, Islamic parties
appear to have increased their combined vote from 29 per cent in 2009 to about
32 per cent.
But there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. The nature of the likely
coalition to take shape over the coming weeks suggests Indonesia will be
governed by a moderate government under which the recent trend of hostility
towards religious minorities could be reversed.
Now that the votes are counted, and parties know exactly what they have to
bargain with, party elites are busy cementing coalitions. To officially nominate
a president/vice-president pair for the presidential election on July 9, a
party, or a coalition of parties, must reach 25 per cent of the popular vote or
20 per cent of lower house seats. Polls had suggested that the PDI-P would get
close to reaching this threshold on its own, but it now seems that it could fall
But while the coalitions for presidential elections are important, within
weeks, parties will also form a governing coalition that can command a majority
of seats in the House of Representatives. It is almost certain now that the
PDI-P will hold the highest number of seats in the house. In addition, despite
the PDI-P’s failure to capitalise on Jokowi’s popularity in the legislative
election, it remains highly unlikely that Jokowi could be defeated by former
General Prabowo Subianto in the presidential elections in July.
While the low
result for the PDI-P makes it more reliant on coalition partners, eventually,
parties will either have to cooperate with a Jokowi-led government, or assume a
more oppositional stance.
There are several reasons why the next PDI-P-led coalition is likely to be
more moderate in regards to minority rights than the current government led by
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party.
The PDI-P regards itself a legatee of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president,
and is a staunch defender of his Pancasila philosophy – a set of ideas that
enjoins belief in god, but also entails the virtues of diversity and tolerance.
In the Indonesian context these leanings are often described as
"secular-nationalist", in contrast to parties that champion a more explicitly
Islamic agenda. In opposition the PDI-P opposed several conservative pieces of
legislation and criticised the government’s inaction in the face of violent
attacks against religious minorities, such as Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah. It
is likely to continue drawing on this pluralist ideological legacy when in
In addition to its own pluralist track record, according to Indonesian media
reports the PDI-P is strongly inclined to work with the National Awakening Party
(PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), who surpassed pollster’s
expectations by gaining about 9.2 per cent and 7.5 per cent of the national vote
respectively. Both are linked to Indonesia’s two oldest and largest Islamic
organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, whose membership bases in the
tens-of-millions make up the vast majority of Indonesia’s Muslim community. A
coalition with these two parties would anchor the "secular-nationalist" PDI-P
firmly in the pluralist Muslim centre.
While the probable coalition between the PDI-P, PKB and PAN is in itself a
centrist force, the likely exclusion of two other Islamic parties further
indicates that the next government will be more moderate.
The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP)
have both been part of President Yudhoyono’s governing coalition, holding key
ministries. To varying degrees, both played a role in Indonesia losing its
international reputation as home to a moderate and tolerant Islam. Importantly,
in contrast to the gains made by the moderate Islamic parties, the combined vote
for the PKS and PPP in 2014 stagnated relative to 2009. The PDI-P is unlikely to
take either of them on board in a new government.
But a coalition of the PDI-P with only the two moderate Islamic parties would
not be enough to form a stable majority-government. The PDI-P will need the
support of one of the medium-sized parties – Gerindra; Prabowo’s party; Golkar,
Suharto’s former electoral vehicle; or the Democrat Party, incumbent president
It seems unlikely that PDI-P and Gerindra can work together for a number of
reasons. First, Prabowo recently accused PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri
of betraying an agreement dating from 2009 between the PDI-P and Gerindra
according to which Megawati was to support Prabowo for the presidency in 2014,
after he ran as her vice-president in 2009. Second, Jokowi is likely to shatter
Prabowo’s ambition of becoming president in July, after Gerindra helped to
deliver him onto the national scene by supporting his successful run for
governor of Jakarta in 2012. Last, and most importantly, over the coming three
months, PDI-P and Gerindra are likely to throw more dirt at each other as the
presidential race will pit Jokowi against Prabowo.
As to a deal between the PDI-P and the Democrat Party, the well-known
personal animosity between PDI-P chairwoman Megawati and Democrat Party patron
Yudhoyono, means that the Democrat Party is also an unlikely coalition partner
for the PDI-P. The Democrat Party also dropped from 20 per cent of the vote in
2009 to 9 per cent in 2014, due to the arrest by the Anti-Corruption Eradication
Commission of several senior board members.
That leaves Golkar as the only party that can offer enough supportive House
of Representatives seats to the PDI-P when it comes to passing legislation. And
what better party to govern with than the party that is yet to spent a single
day in opposition in more than four decades of its existence. Despite on
election night expressing coy ambiguity over Golkar’s prospect of joining a
PDI-P-led coalition, Golkar chairman and presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie
has previously indicated that Golkar is a "government party".
While Golkar has a mixed record in standing up for minority rights, the
absence of the PPP and PKS from government is bound to drag the government down
a much more tolerant path. The starkest illustration of the changing tone the
next government is likely to take towards minorities will be the replacement of
the conservative current minister of religious affairs, PPP chairman Suryadharma
Ali, who is currently facing a backlash from his own party board for,
unbeknownst to them, last week appearing on stage with Prabowo at a Gerindra
rally. He will soon be replaced with a more moderate figure, almost certainly
from the PKB.
In sum, under this possible scenario of a new governing-coalition, the
conservative slice of Islamic parties is relegated to opposition benches.
Instead, the most consistent defender of pluralist values, the PDI-P, together
with the moderate Islamic parties, takes the levers of government.
While a coalition that includes Golkar is not what many hoped for, the
realities of election day leave little hope for a more limited reformist
coalition. But a PDI-P-led government, in which PAN and PKB represent the
moderate Islamic voice, and Golkar makes sure the machine putters along, would
at least allow for the increasingly tight space for religious minorities to
Dominic Berger is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political
Social Change at the Australian National
University. This article originally appeared 11 April in the Sydney Morning Herald.