The parallels between the Congress party and the PDI-P in Indonesia are striking. But unlike the Congress, the PDI-P could potentially poll a resounding victory

A dynastic political party in the throes of existential angst ahead of upcoming elections, facing the choice between irrelevance and loyalty to a family name may sound familiar. However, the reference is not to India’s beleaguered Congress but Indonesia’s PDI-P (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan.)

The parallels between the two parties are striking. Both trace their origins to the sepia-tinted idealism of anti-colonial movements. The PDI-P is the modern-day avatar of the PNI, the nationalist party that was headed by independent Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno. Just as the Congress has developed into the embodiment of the Gandhi family, the PDI-P is synonymous with the Sukarno name.

Controlled by Sukarno’s daughter, the imperious Megawati Sukarnoputri, a culture of sycophancy is endemic to the PDI-P, and as in the Congress, it is loyalty to the family that is the usual path to political success for party hopefuls. Moreover, just as the Congress has refused to name a prime ministerial candidate for the upcoming elections, the PDI-P too is yet to name its candidate for the presidential poll later in the year.

However, there is one crucial difference between the parties too. While it is virtually a foregone conclusion that Congress will face an electoral rout, the PDI-P could potentially poll a resounding victory. The rub, as far as Ms Sukarnoputri is concerned, lies in the condition that such a victory appears contingent on the elevation of a family outsider to the ranks of presidential contender.

Poll after poll has shown PDI-P’s Joko Widodo, the wildly popular and impeccably honest governor of Jakarta, to be a shoo-in for President, were he to stand. But there remains a substantial Megawati-shaped obstacle between Jokowi (as Mr. Widodo is universally known) and the presidential palace, with the party’s matriarch loath to lose control of an organisation that has in effect been her fiefdom.

Ms Sukarnoputri has never won an election. She served as President from 2001 to 2004, but was nominated to that role. She lost both the 2004 and 2009 presidential votes to Indonesia’s current leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Polls show her as having about as much chance at winning the presidency as Rahul Gandhi has of leading his party to an outright victory.

As in India, the Indonesian electorate is ready for a change. And like in India, corruption is a major concern for the electorate with the old guard of dynastic politicians seen as irredeemably compromised. Jokowi represents the breath of fresh air that Obama once promised in the United States. A former furniture businessman, the Jakarta governor only entered politics in 2005 when he was elected mayor of Solo, a mid-level city. He has proven to be an unstoppable force since then, as his meteoric ascent to the country’s favoured next President shows.

And yet, Ms Sukarnoputri has steadfastly refused to name him as the PDI-P’s presidential nominee. She has instead declared the intention of announcing a candidate for the presidential elections only following this April’s parliamentary vote.

It is widely believed that if the PDI-P does well in the latter, Ms Sukarnoputri might defy the pollsters, and many would argue logic, to stand for President herself. It is also possible she might offer Jokowi a vice-presidential ticket to boost her chances. However, if the PDI-P fares badly in April’s parliamentary elections, Jokowi’s chances of being named presidential candidate are seen as higher. Although, even in the latter scenario, analysts say it is likely that Ms Sukarnoputri would insist on picking her son Prananda as running mate.

With the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections dominating Indonesian headlines, political pundits are left reading the tea leaves, which in this case translates into monitoring Ms Sukarnoputri’s body language. Reams are written on whether or not Ibu Mega (literally ‘mother’ Mega), as she is often called, is seen smiling or not, or how closely she stands next to Jokowi when the two appear together.

In deference to Ms Sukarnoputri, Jokowi has never publically announced a desire to stand for President. And he has been on an Ibu Mega-oriented charm offensive over the last few months, even kissing her hand during the PDI-P’s anniversary celebration last month, in a rare, for him, gesture of obsequiousness.

But Ms Sukarnoputri is aware that Jokowi is the man the nation will support, given the opportunity. In Indonesia, politics has long revolved around the individual, rather than the political party. The ruling Partai Demokrat party, for example, was established as a special purpose vehicle for Mr. Yudhoyono’s career, enabling him to break free of the Megawati patronage that had at one point been important to him. There are rumours that Jokowi, too, could break away from PDI-P if denied a nomination, and either join another political rival or even set up his own party. Speculation that Jusuf Kalla, a former vice-president from the Golkar party, has secured the finances to float a new party with Jokowi at the helm and himself as running mate, is rife.

On the other hand, the political gossip mill is also suggesting the possibility of Mr. Kalla joining hands with PDI-P, were Ms Sukarnoputri to nominate him as vice-presidential candidate. The Jokowi-Kalla combination is polling the highest of all potential partnerships.

True priorities

The coming weeks will reveal Ms Sukarnoputri’s true priorities: whether winning a political mandate matters more to her or keeping the PDI-P under family control. Choosing irrelevance in the slim hope that her family’s dynastic ambitions, what Ms Sukarnoputri sees as family destiny, might yet find fruition at some later date, is a real possibility. But, if she bends to popular will and names Jokowi, the future political landscape in Indonesia could be indelibly altered.

India should be watching the Indonesian elections with rapt attention. After all, the central question of India’s long-term political future is whether or not the Congress will ever be able to outgrow the Gandhi family. The PDI-P’s evolution could suggest a relevant answer.

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