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An elite club with past Indonesian presidents? Why incoming leader Prabowo's idea is stirring debate

Channel News Asia - May 9, 2024

Jakarta – An elite club comprising Indonesia's sitting and living former presidents could help incoming leader Prabowo Subianto consolidate power, but challenges lie in bridging new and old rifts, analysts say.

Media outlets were quick to pounce on the idea of a presidential club, first raised by Mr Prabowo's spokesperson in late April.

"Mr Prabowo has repeatedly expressed his strong desire to convene and hold discussions with former presidents, thereby forming a presidential club," said Mr Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak during an interview with Kompas TV.

The club would serve as a forum for exchanging views and ideas on strategic national issues, enabling Mr Prabowo to benefit from the experiences of his predecessors in governing the country, Mr Dahnil said.

Earlier this week, he said the presidential club would not be a formal set-up and there are no plans to institutionalise it, unlike the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres). Wantimpres is a government body that advises the Indonesian president on daily administration and is regulated by Article 16 of the Constitution of Indonesia.

By the time Mr Prabowo takes office on Oct 20, Indonesia will have three living former presidents: Mr Joko Widodo, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Mr Widodo as well as Mr Yudhoyono's party have welcomed the idea of such a club, with incumbent Mr Widodo even joking that his successor could meet with the former presidents every other day.

Mr Yudhoyono's Democratic Party also welcomed the proposal warmly. Senior party official Andi Mallarangeng, a confidant of Mr Yudhoyono, said the country's sixth president would endorse the idea, news site Kompas.com reported. The United States has such a club, Mr Andi noted.

The sitting US president, as well as living former presidents, have come together at state funerals and for various causes. Mr Joe Biden, Mr Barack Obama, and Mr George W Bush all tapped their predecessors when they were in office.

For instance, Mr George W Bush stood with two former presidents, his father George HW Bush and Mr Bill Clinton, in early 2005 when calling for donations for victims of the 2004 Aceh earthquake and tsunami. In 2010, Mr Obama, flanked by Mr Clinton and Mr George W Bush, sought aid for survivors of an earthquake in Haiti.

But Mr Prabowo could face challenges with Ms Megawati, analysts say.

Rifts between former leaders

Her relationship with Mr Yudhoyono has been frosty for the past two decades, ever since the latter decided to contest against her in the 2004 presidential election.

Mr Yudhoyono, who eventually won the election, was serving as Ms Megawati's chief security minister at the time. It is widely believed that Ms Megawati viewed this as a betrayal.

There are also tensions between Ms Megawati and Mr Widodo, following his decision to break away from her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) in the recent presidential election.

Mr Widodo's decision not to endorse PDIP's presidential nominee, Mr Ganjar Pranowo, and his tacit support of Mr Prabowo, who ran alongside his son Mr Gibran Rakabuming Raka, angered the ruling party.

The PDIP recently confirmed Mr Widodo and Mr Gibran are no longer members of the party.

Mr Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta, told CNA it would be very challenging for Mr Prabowo to get Ms Megawati, Mr Yudhoyono, and Mr Widodo at the same table.

"First, Mr Prabowo needs to reconcile Mr Widodo and Ms Megawati. Mr Gibran's nomination was a direct challenge to Ms Megawati's authority as the PDIP's chairperson," Mr Yoes said.

"So far, there are no signs of thawing tensions between Ms Megawati and Mr Widodo. Within the inner circle of PDIP, the narrative remains staunchly opposed to Mr Widodo (plus Mr Gibran and his son-in-law, Medan mayor Bobby Nasution)," added Dr Ambang Priyonggo, assistant professor of political communication at the department of digital journalism of the Multimedia Nusantara University.

The second obstacle, according to Mr Yoes, is how Mr Prabowo would find a way to bridge old tensions between Ms Megawati and Mr Yudhoyono.

The key to the club's success lies with Ms Megawati, said Dr Ambang. In his view, it would be difficult for Mr Prabowo to establish the presidential club.

Way to consolidate power?

If it materialises, the club would help Mr Prabowo consolidate his presidency, especially in the first and second years which are typically the most challenging, analysts say.

Although Mr Prabowo looks to have garnered support from enough parties to form a near-supermajority in parliament, the PDIP – which won the highest percentage of votes in February's legislative elections – has not joined his coalition.

"As we know, PDIP is likely to be in the opposition and may disrupt Prabowo's presidential agenda, creating a possible gridlock," said Dr Ambang.

In addition, Ms Megawati and Mr Yudhoyono still hold influence and political power through leadership of their respective parties.

If Mr Prabowo can play the role of "peacemaker", this will help him consolidate power, said Dr Adhi Priamarizki, a research fellow at the Indonesia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

He suggested that initially, Mr Prabowo could consult one-on-one with his predecessors, who would offer counsel.

But there are concerns that a presidential club could ultimately lead to a political cartel that could hamper Indonesia's democratic process.

In order to gather all the living ex-presidents in one forum, Mr Yoes said, Mr Prabowo must be willing to make some political concessions that could come at a price.

"The club will not only serve as an advisory body but also as a forum to ensure that Prabowo-Gibran's policies are executed without strong parliamentary opposition," Mr Yoes explained.

"Support from this presidential club will help Prabowo-Gibran secure symbolic and parliamentary legitimacy because, after all, the club members were, and are the most powerful politicians in Indonesia right now. They are all kingmakers."

Dr Adhi agrees a presidential club could play a crucial role in the new government, although the arrangement is likely to be informal.

"The seniority and centrality of those former presidents mean they can influence decision-making within their own camp," he noted.

On whether the forum will help Mr Widodo, also known as Jokowi, retain influence after he steps down as president, Dr Adhi said it is unlikely.

"Jokowi needs a more formal engagement to maintain his influence in the upcoming government. For now, he can rely on his son Gibran directly to preserve his agenda. Furthermore, the existence of other political figures in the presidential club means he is not the only power axis there," said Dr Adhi.

Not all analysts believe Indonesia is ready to have a presidential club.

Comparisons with the US presidential club are "premature", said Mr Yoes, because ex-American presidents comprising both Democrats and Republicans – with the exception of Mr Donald Trump – have managed to convene in a non-partisan manner. "In Indonesia, politics is always personal," he said.

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-presidential-club-prabowo-megawati-sby-jokowi-432117