Indonesia’s Prabowo wants a ‘president’s club’. But can Joko Widodo, Megawati, Yudhoyono see eye to eye?

Indonesia’s Prabowo wants a ‘president’s club’. But can Joko Widodo, Megawati, Yudhoyono see eye to eye?

Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto’s plan to form an advisory council consisting of the country’s past leaders may face obstacles given the strong personalities and unresolved disputes between them, analysts said, mirroring some of the challenges he faces in forming a broad coalition government.

Prabowo’s spokesperson Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak first floated the idea of a “president’s club” earlier this month.

“In essence, Prabowo wants former presidents to continue to meet regularly and discuss strategic national issues. So that national friendship is maintained, and they become role models for all of us,” Dahnil told reporters on May 3.

Members of the group would include the country’s three living former presidents – Joko Widodo, his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto (left) and vice-president elect Gibran Rakabuming Raka walk past a picture of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, also father of Gibran. Photo: AFP

Widodo appeared to be on board when asked about the so-called “president’s club”, telling reporters that a “meeting every few days would be just fine”. Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party also publicly welcomed the proposal.

Prabowo, 74, is set to take over the presidency from Widodo on October 20. The former general won a landslide victory in the country’s February election, a win observers have largely attributed to the tacit electoral support of the highly popular current president.

Analysts say, while the club may be Prabowo’s attempt to consolidate his power by keeping influential presidents – particularly Widodo – at arm’s length, there are already limitations to the group working together.

The biggest challenge is the grievances the former leaders may hold for each other, according to Alexander Arifianto, a senior fellow with the Indonesia programme at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Whether this idea is politically feasible or not remains to be seen,” Arifianto said.

It might be particularly difficult to court Megawati – the chairwoman of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Analysts say she has held a grudge against Yudhoyono after he defeated her in the 2004 election, consigning PDI-P to the opposition under his administration.

(From left) Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, President Joko Widodo, Vice-President Maruf Amin and PDI-P’s presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo. Photo: AFP

More recently, Megawati has had a falling out with Widodo, who had been a PDI-P member for over two decades. During that time, he relied on Megawati’s political patronage as he rose from mayor of Solo to governor of Jakarta to the presidency.

His relationship with PDI-P soured after his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, joined Prabowo’s electoral ticket as his running mate. Widodo then lent his tacit support to their candidacy, leaving PDI-P’s candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, to languish and eventually finish the race in third place.

A party official declared both the president and Gibran no longer members of the PDI-P last month due to their lack of support for Ganjar.

Widodo’s support for Prabowo was widely seen as a betrayal of his former party, one that analysts say Megawati is unlikely to look past.

Attempts to arrange private meetings between Prabowo and Megawati have failed to materialise, and there have been signals that the PDI-P is considering taking on an opposition role when Prabowo forms his government.

But the president-elect’s Gerindra party has tried to maintain a note of optimism, with party officials saying talks between the two were imminent.

Prabowo has also been courting rival parties in hopes of expanding his political coalition and gaining a legislative majority. So far, two of the three parties that supported rival candidate Anies Baswedan – the National Democratic Party and the National Awakening – announced they would align with Prabowo’s coalition.

But he is yet to win over the PDI-P that won 16.72 per cent of the vote in February, making the party the victor in the legislative election.

For the PDI-P, a political deal with Prabowo may require some assurances that Widodo is not going to be given an influential position within the next administration
Alexander Arifianto, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Prabowo is really looking to create a so-called ‘national unity cabinet’, political scientist Arifianto says.

“This would basically unite all the major factions and political parties represented in the cabinet right now, and the presidential club is an extension of that idea.”

But Prabowo needs to be cognisant of the animosity between Widodo and Megawati, and will have a delicate “balancing act” on his hands, Arifianto said, if he hopes to get both figures on his side.

“For the PDI-P, a political deal with Prabowo may require some assurances that Widodo is not going to be given an influential position within the next administration.”

PDI-P secretary general Hasto Kristiyanto said on Monday that Megawati was well-aware of the proposal for the club, but did not comment further on her interest.

“Without Megawati, the club would constitute little more than personal meanings between Prabowo and Widodo, with Yudhoyono peripherally present,” wrote Indonesia analyst Kevin O’Rourke in his latest “Reformasi Weekly” newsletter published on Friday.



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Prabowo’s Widodo predicament

As Prabowo prepares to take the reins of the presidency from Widodo, analysts say he might have both a “friend and a foe” in him.

Prabowo acknowledged his closeness with Widodo was a major factor in his presidential victory, in an interview with Al Jazeera this week, saying voters responded well to him being seen as part of “the incumbent team”.

However, the idea of the club could be a result of Prabowo’s “consternation” with Widodo, according to O’Rourke.

Widodo’s approval rating remains high for an outgoing leader, reaching 77 per cent in a survey conducted by Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik in the first week of April

As such, the current president appears to be keen to “find a means to perpetuate his practical political clout beyond the end of his term”, said O’Rourke, which includes the possibility of joining or leading another large party in the next parliament. That would be less than ideal for Prabowo, who would prefer those parties be chaired by somebody “personally loyal to him”.

“The proposal for a president’s club is a means to put forth an alternative mode for channelling Widodo’s energies – but it seems destined to fail,” O’Rourke said.

Analyst Arifianto concurred, saying that accommodating both Megawati and Widodo would be a challenge for Prabowo in forming his club, but also as he attempts to field both of them as part of his “national unity government”.



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