Suharto-Era Indonesian Generals Signal Alliance to Fight Jokowi

(Bloomberg) -- Two former Suharto-era Indonesian generals are edging closer to a deal to challenge incumbent President Joko Widodo, who is set to seek a second five-year term in office.

Prabowo Subianto, a former general and chairman of Indonesia’s main opposition party, Gerindra, held talks with former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta on Tuesday about a possible alliance. Gerindra and Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party will continue discussions about specifics of a pact in the coming days, according to Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the former president’s son.

The meeting between Subianto, popularly known as Prabowo, and Yudhoyono comes amid speculation that the former president is pitching for his son as a potential vice-president candidate. A coalition between Gerindra and the Democrats, the third and fourth-ranked parties in the parliament, will strengthen Prabowo’s bid to challenge Widodo to whom he lost the 2014 poll.

“Talks will definitely continue between the Democrats and Gerindra,” Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono said in a text message on Wednesday. “Working teams assigned by each side will sit together and explore further the coalition opportunities and mechanics.”

Jokowi Pick

Widodo, known as Jokowi, is also yet to name a running mate, although his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, has voiced support for current Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla whose ability to run again depends on the outcome of a court challenge to rules on term limits.

The window for presidential nominations runs from Aug. 4 through Aug. 10 with the official campaign set to kick off in September. Voting is scheduled for April 2019.

There is “literally a dearth of popular alternatives” with Prabowo representing the only significant challenge to Jokowi’s presidency, said Kevin O’Rourke, an independent political analyst in Jakarta. “The Democrat Party gives Prabowo some centrist credentials which is what he needs.”

While Jokowi is regarded as the first president to come from outside the political elite or the military, both Prabowo and Yudhoyono, were generals in the Indonesian military during the authoritarian leader Suharto’s 32-year reign. Prabowo was previously married to one of Suharto’s daughters.

A former special-forces commander, Prabowo has also worked hard to cultivate an image of as a no-nonsense leader who would be tough on corruption and is seen as appealing to nationalist sentiment. He is regarded as a strong campaigner and would be expected to make up ground on Widodo who enjoys a strong lead in opinion polls.

Economic Growth

Indonesia’s economy has expanded at about 5 percent under Jokowi, well short of the 7 percent promised by him when he took office. Still, the unemployment rate is at a two decade low and the president has been praised for a massive infrastructure program and reform agenda that’s helped secure sovereign rating upgrades and much-needed investment.

Gerindra has said it will fight the election on economic issues and wants a budget shake-up including more money for defense spending. Still, there are worries of a repeat of the unrest that marked gubernatorial election held in Jakarta last year that saw hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets against the then incumbent Chinese-Christian governor.

“My concern and concerns of other investors is we don’t want to see identity politics show its head again like we saw with the governor election in Jakarta,” said Edward Gustely, managing director of Jakarta-based investment advisory firm Penida Capital.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.