Indonesia's president-elect Joko Widodo faces battle to win over his own party

Powerful, ambitious and with a sense of dynastic entitlement, Puan Maharani may threaten new Indonesian leader Joko Widodo from within

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 11:59am

After winning Indonesia's closest ever presidential election, Joko Widodo now faces what could be his toughest battle yet - winning over his own party.

To do that, he must deal with Puan Maharani, the politically ambitious daughter of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and a powerful figure in the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P). It's the party her mother heads and the bloc that propelled Widodo - known as Jokowi - into the presidential palace.

For some, there is a risk of a power struggle among the rank and file of Indonesia's most popular party that could muddle Widodo's agenda in parliament, where Puan is party leader.

"The leadership of PDI-P is still not united in their support," said one party insider of Widodo's backing. Like most party officials, the insider declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"Puan does have followers … of course, they are threatened by somebody like Jokowi."

Puan is heir to a political dynasty that goes back to her grandfather and founding president, Sukarno. Widodo is the new face of national politics, seen by some as an upstart who threatens the grip of the established political elite.

While losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto plans to file a legal challenge in the nation's highest court, analysts do not expect a court challenge to succeed, given the size of Widodo's victory - he won by six percentage points or about 8.4 million votes.

Instead, his big battle will be with his own party.

Members put on a united front in public, but behind the scenes suspicion simmers, insiders say. Many of the party's old guard reluctantly backed Widodo as their presidential candidate only after Megawati, well aware that her chances of running successfully for the presidency this time were next to zero, put her own ambitions aside and offered the nomination to the hugely popular Jakarta governor.

But the can-do governor who has become Indonesia's most popular politician nearly did not make it. After leading by as much as 30 percentage points in opinion polls a few months before the presidential election, infighting and indecisiveness within his party saw the lead shrink to just five points.

The party was also seen as having squandered chances of pulling in more votes in April's parliamentary election, though it still came out on top. After the April vote, Widodo went public with his disappointment with the results and how the campaign was run. That was seen as an unmistakable sign of tension between the presidential candidate and Puan, who ran the campaign.

In an interview, Widodo denied there was any conflict with Puan: "In our party there are a lot of political dynamics. I think that's normal."

Other top PDI-P officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite his denial of a rift, Widodo is likely to be looking over his shoulder at his own ranks as he prepares to start his five-year term in October, almost as much as he looks to square off with the opposition.

"Jokowi needs to make sure he won't be challenged by his own party in the parliament to pursue his budget and his policy proposals," said Phillips Vermonte, political analyst at Jakarta-based think-tank CSIS. "He needs to make sure the party is in his full control."

Like Rahul Gandhi of India's Congress Party, Puan is seen by many as PDI-P's heir apparent.

"She believes that the party belongs to the family and she is the heir. There is a sense of entitlement," the PDI-P insider said.

Puan, 40, was elected to parliament in 2009 and was heavily involved in her mother's failed presidential campaign that year. She is the PDI-P's deputy of politics and was in charge of this year's legislative campaign.

The Puan faction believes Widodo, 53, has climbed up the political ladder too quickly, butting in front of long-time party loyalists in an unprecedented rise from small-town mayor to Jakarta governor to the leader of the world's third largest democracy in less than a decade.

They fear Widodo's team and all of his supporters will push them out, overhaul the entire party, and leave Sukarno's direct descendants out in the cold.

"They … feel that their positions can be protected by Puan because they feel that Megawati is too aloof," the PDI-P insider said. "That's where [Puan] gets her power and confidence."

When Megawati turned to Widodo as the party's presidential candidate, Puan supporters pressed for the daughter to be his running mate. But the role went to a former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla. Kalla said Puan needs to build up her political experience over the next five years as a minister or as the speaker of parliament. Then she could be in a good position to replace him as Widodo's running mate in 2019.

Despite the tensions within the party, PDI-P officials say that once a decision is made by Megawati the discussion ends - reflecting the power of the party boss.

"Don't paint it as though there's friction within the party," PDI-P lawmaker Rieke Diah Pitaloka said. "Arguments are not unusual, especially within the PDI-P. We can have heated arguments, but when an instruction comes out, we follow."

The party is expected to hold a national convention in May. Puan is expected to try for party boss if her mother steps down.