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Politicians' billboard war underscores absence of policy contestation

Fulcrum - September 3, 2021

Max Lane – Early presidential bids by some Indonesian politicians have highlighted the lack of any policy debate in mainstream Indonesian politics.

Indonesia's presidential elections are still three years away, but it appears that some candidates have already thrown their hats into the ring. In May this year, a media furore broke out over a perceived slight towards Ganjar Pranowo, the Governor of Central Java, by Puan Maharani. The latter is the daughter of Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and high-profile figure in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Puan, a senior cabinet Minister during the first presidential term of Joko Widodo, was selected to be the Chairperson of the House of Representatives (DPR) for the 2019-2024 period. Governor Ganjar Pranowo is also a high profile PDIP figure.

In a sense, such early contestation for the country's highest elected office is odd. In polls surveying potential electability as president in 2024, Ganjar has been scoring between 8.8-12 per cent, while Puan has been scoring under 4 per cent, even sometimes under 1 per cent. They need to maximise their profile if they wish to get into a significant bargaining position in the run-up to the 2024 elections. Prabowo Subianto is the only potential candidate at the moment that scores consistently well.

The escalating focus on candidates positioning for the 2024 election began to attract heightened media attention at the end of May. Puan, as Chairperson of the PDIP Central Council, organised a cadre meeting in Semarang, the capital of Central Java, but did not invite Ganjar to the meeting. For days the media covered this as reflecting the tension between the Sukarno family and Ganjar. Ganjar is the highest rated PDIP politician today, apart from President Widodo. While both Puan and Ganjar avoided any mutual criticism, both the commercial and social media were full of talk of increasing tensions. There were frequent references to Ganjar's active personal social media presence. Puan was quoted, during the flurry of reporting, as saying that real leaders should be out in the field, not just busy on social media, while Ganjar made a point of being seen out and about.

Even before May, people had been noticing large billboards springing up all over Java promoting Puan as a political leader. There would be a large picture of her in some form of traditional formal dress and a general positive slogan alongside. While there are usually no references to the 2024 polls, it is widely assumed that this is a publicity campaign to prepare the way for Puan to be a presidential candidate. Under current laws, President Widodo cannot stand again and the PDIP will need to find a new candidate.

In August, Tempo magazine reported that PDIP branches have put up at least 2,000 such billboards for Puan. But PDIP branches do not appear to be putting up billboards for Ganjar. However, in the same report, Tempo says that Airlangga Hartarto, Chairperson of the Golkar Party, has put up 2,500 of these giant billboards in the same style. In these circumstances, people have begun talking about a 'billboard war'.

Hartarto's entry into the fray at this early stage is intriguing in itself. Golkar is also a part of the governing coalition and was a strong advocate for Jokowi Widodo during the 2019 presidential campaign. Hartarto is Co-ordinating Minister for Economic Affairs in Widodo's cabinet. In June, a Golkar assembly chose him to be Golkar's presidential candidate in 2024.

It should be noted that Golkar is the second-largest party in the Indonesian Parliament with 85 seats, some way behind PDIP's 128. The Gerindra Party, chaired by Prabowo Subianto, is the third-largest with 78 seats. While other billboards have gone up promoting other figures, those of Puan and Hartarto dominate at the moment.

In theory, Puan would be the candidate with the easiest formal pathway to a Presidential nomination. The PDIP has enough seats in the DPR to nominate her outright – 20 per cent of seats, although a parliamentary majority could lower this if it wanted. But whether this relatively easier pathway translates into electability is another question altogether. Under current law, Hartarto, and also Prabowo, would each need to be nominated by two or three parties, at least. It is this situation that is propelling Puan and Hartarto to the fore.

Prabowo, the Minister of Defence in Widodo's government, has not initiated his own billboard campaign yet. The former general was defeated twice by the President in presidential elections, and came to a rapprochement with Widodo prior to his ministerial appointment. But this does not preclude him from launching another presidential bid in the future.

Prabowo provides an interesting study here. He scores well above both Hartarto and Ganjar in all polls surveying the popularity of potential presidential candidates. At this stage, however, it is interesting to note that candidates with higher levels of popularity have not thrust themselves into the billboard war. Although there are regular media reports of suggestions that the law be changed to allow Widodo to stand for a third term, polls have not been including his name in surveys.

The billboard war has sparked widespread cynicism, with some arguing that it is not the time, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, for politicians to be focused on the 2024 elections. A Tempo magazine cover on 10 August ran the title: 'Presidential Elections Now, Covid Later.' This emphasises again one of the fundamental features of mainstream politics in Indonesia: all contestation is purely rhetorical in the sense that there is no contestation around ideology, programme or policies.

The irony behind the descent into a war of billboards during a crisis is that the politicians in the fray are part of the same government. This underlines a particular characteristic of Indonesian party and electoral politics – the rivalry between factions and their leading figures frames everything. If anything, the criticism of the billboard war's inappropriate timing is an indictment of Indonesian politics: it is more about rivalry between duelling politicians and their personalities, rather than any discussion about policy.

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/politicians-billboard-war-underscores-absence-of-policy-contestation