Endy Bayuni, Jakarta – Most discussions about the 2024 presidential election focus on three names that have consistently topped all surveys of the most popular figures: Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan.
Few will give House Speaker Puan Maharani the chance. She barely makes it to the top 10 in all these surveys. She has "low electability" as they say in survey parlance.
But the presidential election is not like the popular American TV game show Family Feud in which contestants are asked to name the most popular answer to survey questions. More than a popularity contest, elections are a game of strategy. For this reason, we should not be quick to dismiss Puan's chances. She has a strategy and is actively pursuing it.
Before you enter the popularity contest, you have to get a ticket to run. The electoral system is designed to limit contestants to a maximum of four pairs of president and vice presidential names and they can only be proposed by political parties. Unlike Family Feud, which asks contestants to come up with the answers to surveys, the choices in 2024 are going to be limited.
When the nomination closes on Nov. 25, 2023, voters will be lucky to find their choice of only four pairs. More likely, they will have three or as in 2014 and 2019, a choice of two. It's also always possible, though God forbid, that we will have a single pair running in 2024.
The electoral regulation says only political parties can nominate candidates in the presidential election and then only those who won more than 25 percent of the votes in 2019 or have more than 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. Alternatively, parties can pool their votes or House seats to jointly nominate candidates.
Only the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has the automatic right to nominate candidates. Puan has got the ticket if she wants to run. Prabowo has already declared his candidacy and he is almost assured a ticket with his Gerindra party forming a coalition with the Nation Awakening Party (PKB).
Ganjar has to take the backseat to Puan as he hails from PDI-P, unless he runs on another party's ticket. Anies is not a member of any political party. So, two of the three most popular figures for 2024 could end up standing on the sidelines. This will be like watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November without our favorite team, Italy, which failed to qualify for the second time running.
If Puan or her PDI-P can force the election to a two-horse race, she stands a chance of beating Prabowo, her most likely opponent. She may have low electability in a field of more than 10 names to choose from, but when voters are given the choice of either Puan and Prabowo, she can see her electability increase.
Puan has been visiting political parties not only to drum up support for her presidential bid but in the process she is also undermining the unity of two coalition of parties that have been formed but not decided on their common presidential candidates. If she can pull this off, we could well see only two contestants in 2024.
The National Democratic Party (NasDem) may have second thoughts about its nomination after chairman Surya Paloh hosted Puan's visit. The party had earlier announced it would consider nominating either Anies, Ganjar or Indonesian Military Chief Gen. Andhika Perkasa, but following the meeting, Surya says NasDem will also consider Puan.
NasDem has formed a coalition with the Democratic Party and the Justice Welfare Party (PKS) but they have not agreed on a common candidate. If one of the parties quit, none will have the power to nominate their candidates.
The other coalition, made up of Golkar, the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP) cannot agree on their presidential nomination and may likely break up and each ending up supporting candidates from other parties.
Sensing the election field tightening to a two-horse race, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week declared he was "descending from the hill," an Indonesian expression meaning to come out of hiding to fix problems. Yudhoyono cried foul play from forces trying to turn 2024 into a two-horse race. This will effectively close the door on his son, Agus Harimurti, who chairs the party, from getting a ticket, either for the president or vice presidential slot.
A three-horse race will likely see Anies joining the field on the NasDem-led coalition ticket, along with Prabowo. Judging by the surveys, it will be hard but not impossible for Puan to win the top two slots in the first round to make it to the runoff.
If democracy is about giving people choices, then a three-horse race is preferable and the more candidates, the better.
In 2004, when the direct presidential election was introduced, five candidates ran and in 2009, we had three. The elections became a two-horse race in 2014 and 2019, as parties realized they were better off backing candidates that had a chance of winning rather than fielding a certain loser. Both times saw Joko "Jokowi" Widodo beating Prabowo.
A two-horse race pitting Puan against Prabowo may boil down to the size of negative votes, meaning people will vote against the candidate they do not want to become president.
There are many people who do not want to see Prabowo elected for the same reason they voted against him in 2014 and 2019 and there are people who loathe the idea of a president Puan and will vote against her. One could extend the argument that in a three-horse race there are people who do not want to see Anies winning the election.
May the "lesser evil horse" win.
[The writer is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post.]