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Analysis: Mahfud's resignation causes but a blip in the election race

Jakarta Post - February 5, 2024

Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – Mahfud MD is stepping down from his job as coordinating minister for politics, law and human rights, citing the need to prevent a potential conflict of interests given that he is running for the vice-presidential office in the Feb. 14 election. But with the election just two weeks away, his decision is not likely to be followed by other state officials running for other offices, even though they are just as equally conflicted.

Running on the same ticket with former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, Mahfud said he would personally convey his decision to President Joko "Jokowi Widodo in Jakarta on Thursday. Responding to the news, Jokowi who was in the Central Java town of Klaten, said he respected Mahfud's decision, indicating that he would accept the resignation.

The electoral law does not require state officials to resign if they are running for political offices, but they must take leave when campaigning, and they must not use state facilities. Their status in the cabinet is left to the discretion President Jokowi, who told them before the election campaign season started in October that they could keep their jobs.

Many cabinet members, however, are combining official visits to the regions with election campaigns, which could potentially amount to abusing the privileges that come with their office. They have dismissed critics who called for their resignation because of the immense potential conflict of interests. One of these is Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, the leading contender in the presidential race. Upon hearing news of Mahfud's decision. Prabowo quipped "It's his political right", which leads to the conclusion that it his own political right not to resign.

Criticism of conflicting interests has also been aimed at the President, who last week said that nothing in the electoral law prevents him from taking sides or from taking part in the campaigns. Jokowi has openly endorsed the candidacy of Prabowo who is running with his 36-year-old son Gibran Rakabuming Raka. He recognizes that he has to take leave from his job if he were to campaign in the race. The General Elections Commission (KPU) says this means Jokowi the citizen must ask permission from Jokowi the president. The public have not heard of this happening although some of the President's recent actions smack of campaigning.

Critics say Jokowi's regional tours in the past weeks amount to discreet campaigning as he dispensed rice aid to poor people, which helped the electoral standing of the Prabowo-Gibran ticket, which is campaigning on continuing his policies. His announcement this week of a hike in the pay of civil servants, soldiers and police officers, also smacks of populism.

Ganjar has called on all other ministers and holders of state offices to resign from their jobs if they are contesting the elections to avoid accusations of conflicting interests and abuse of state facilities. Gibran is the mayor of the Central Java town of Surakarta.

What's more

Mahfud's resignation could not have come a moment too soon as he found himself in an awkward position of having to criticize the Jokowi government, of which he was part, in his campaign. In one debate between vice presidential candidates, Gibran criticized Mahfud for not doing what he pledged to do in the campaign, given his senior position in the current government.

With the exception of a few technocrats, most of the cabinet members are designated by the seven political parties that are part of Jokowi's coalition government, and many of them are now running for the House of Representatives for their parties. In return for a share of power, and the privileges that come with cabinet and other top government jobs, these parties, which control more than 80 percent of the House seats, have helped Jokowi's legislative agenda. The incentives to stay in the cabinet outweigh the incentive to leave.

As the election nears, some ministers are now finding competing demand for their allegiances, between the President and their parties, and this is reflected in the atmosphere of cabinet meetings, which insiders say, has become far less cordial. This factor, and also with many ministers busy campaigning in the elections, raises questions about the effectiveness of the government. Jokowi is not due to step down until October.

This political charade will likely continue even as relations within the cabinet deteriorate. Jokowi has said he has no plans to replace the ministers whose parties are on the opposite side, while the parties have said they will not recall their officials from the cabinet. Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs Luhut Panjaitan disclosed that these ministers have been given the option of tendering their resignations but none had taken it up, until Mahfud this week.

Particularly problematic is the Indonesian Democratic Part of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest member of the coalition and which is supporting the Ganjar-Mahfud ticket. The other coalition members on the opposite side are the United Development Party (PPP) which also endorses Ganjar-Mahfud, while the NasDem Party and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) support the candidacy of the third pair, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar.

Things may change after Feb. 14 once the results of the election, even if provisionally, are known, whether Prabowo wins in one round, or there will be a runoff on June 26.

A one-round victory for Prabowo means these parties will want to quickly patch up differences and lobby to be part of the next coalition government. An inconclusive election with a June runoff, however, may see new alliances being formed by political parties, and the race will become so heated that the presence of parties opposing Prabowo's election becomes untenable. They may quit the cabinet, or Jokowi may ask them to leave.

What we've heard

Two close associates of Mahfud said the plan to resign from the cabinet had been discussed since he signed up for the election as a vice-presidential candidate. Discussions about this plan intensified in recent weeks, and the final decision was made after Mahfud met with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri on Monday.

The sources said the resignation plan was postponed for a while because Mahfud had to finish his homework concerning the task force for Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance and the controversy over the revision of the Constitutional Court Law. "The jobs can now be continued by Mahfud's successor," said the source.

The sources said Mahfud intensively discussed the resignation plan with Ganjar and their campaign team in December 2023. Several options were considered back then, including Mahfud would resign provided that Prabowo Subianto also quit the cabinet.

Other than Mahfud, Social Affairs Minister Tri Rismaharini also considered resigning, citing the discomfort within the cabinet. However, Megawati asked Risma to stay and assist President Jokowi until the end of his term in October.

This directive was conveyed by Megawati to Finance Minister Sri Mulyani and other ministers from PDI-P. "Her advice is to maintain the stability of the country, so she suggests that they stay in the cabinet," said one source.

[This content is provided by Tenggara Strategics in collaboration with The Jakarta Post to serve the latest comprehensive and reliable analysis on Indonesia's political and business landscape.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/02/05/analysis-mahfuds-resignation-causes-but-a-blip-in-the-election-race.htm