What we’ve got here is failure to communicate

Joko Widodo alongside Megawati Soekarnoputri and senior PDI-P figures at the opening of the party congress in Bali, 9 April. (Photo: Jawa Pos Group)

 

If it achieved nothing else, last week’s PDI-P party congress managed to confuse a lot of tourists. The sleepy beach resort of Sanur was turned a brilliant red as thousands of party officials, staffers, journalists and hangers-on swarmed around a 1960s-era beachfront hotel for the five yearly event. Sunburnt Dutch retirees found deckchairs occupied by branch secretaries from Kalimantan and Aceh, while Korean businessmen on their way to the golf course were startled by the sight of paramilitary police slouching on assault rifles. Guests at the nearby Swiss-Bel Resort will go home with a good story after the anti-corruption commission conducted a late night raid to arrest a PDI-P MP while he was allegedly receiving a large bribe in his suite.

Back inside the ballrooms and conference halls where the congress took place, you might have thought that the atmosphere would be jubilant. After PDI-P came first in 2014’s legislative elections, its presidential candidate won office last July, bringing the party back into government after a decade in the wilderness. Wouldn’t the congress be a PR-laden showcase for the regeneration of the party’s ranks, in the form of President Jokowi and popular regional leaders like Tri Rismaharini and Ganjar Pranowo, in full view of the national media?

Not by a long shot. Of course, Ed Aspinall’s observations of the previous PDI-P congress in 2010 still ring true of the party.

In their physical appearance and personal style, the delegates looked like what they are: a cross section of remarkably ordinary, and mostly lower middle-class, small town and provincial Indonesians…At its core, the congress was a boisterous and hugely entertaining affair. Far from being a demure event, it was full of cheering and jeering, good-natured heckling, excited and sometimes angry declamations and frequent hilarious interjections…In short, this was not a gathering of a slick metropolitan elite but a festival of lower middle-class culture.

The endearingly laid back and (thankfully for researchers) talkative PDI-P cadres give at least a sheen of credibility to their organisation’s self-image as the party of and for the common man.

The true believers. (Photo: Marcus Mietzner)

The true believers. (Photo: Marcus Mietzner)

Yet the 2015 congress was at once more and less than what Aspinall saw in 2010. Although in much better electoral shape than it was five years ago, it was paradoxically the worst of PDI-P on display in Sanur last week. With former president Megawati Soekarnoputri’s reelection as chairwoman a fait accompli six months ago, her leadership team and the rank and file used the Bali congress to both reemphasise her feudalistic reign over the party and belittle the president whom many feel is an affront to it. No serious internal debate was allowed, with the usual deliberations about the party’s internal administration truncated by the leadership elite.

Since the expulsion of dissidents after the 2005 congress, and the death of Mega’s straight talking husband Taufik Kiemas in 2013, that elite is mostly populated by sycophants and blood relatives. That’s no surprise: she chooses them herself. Elections for the national management board, or Dewan Pengurus Pusat (DPP), are not held. Megawati simply announces its members to the congress after several hours’ consideration behind closed doors.

The new line up was revealing: Megawati’s son, the shy but increasingly ambitious Prananda Prabowo, joins his half-sister, cabinet minister Puan Maharani, on the board. Notably, Maruarar Sirait, the prominent Jokowi booster whose appointment to cabinet was blocked by Megawati in 2014, was not reappointed to his position. Once again, many more younger party figures with positive public profiles were passed over.

Megawati Soekarnoputri on to announce her hand-picked PDI-P executive. (Photo: Marcus Mietzner)

Megawati Soekarnoputri on stage after announcing her hand-picked PDI-P executive. (Photo: Marcus Mietzner)

Which brings us to the man many in the party brass wished wasn’t there: the president. It might be an exaggeration to describe the relationship between Jokowi and PDI-P as dysfunctional—but not a very big one. What has been exaggerated in recent weeks is the success of attempts at reconciliation between the palace and party after the police-KPK crisis earlier this year.

It seems Megawati was deadly serious when she said during last year’s presidential election that Jokowi is merely a petugas partai (party functionary)—and, corollary to that, a peon of hers.

As Tempo magazine revealed this week, the president and his staff had prepared a speech for him to deliver at the congress, but he was refused permission to do so. Not once did Jokowi even mount the stage. Instead, he remained seated in the front row wearing his poker face while Megawati took a swipe at his administration, reminding him of what she characterised as his constitutional responsibility to represent his party while in office. This was all in front of a national television audience as the PDI-P rank and file who packed the room cheered her on. (The video below is cued to this section.)

In her extraordinary address, Megawati denounced the ‘stowaways’ and ‘backstabbers’ who had ‘sneaked’ into Jokowi’s administration via his campaign team. While not naming names, it was obvious she was referring to Cabinet Secretary Andi Widjojanto, State Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno, and Chief of Presidential Staff Luhut Pandjaitan.

It’s no secret that Mega’s relationships with Rini and Andi (both former protégées and family friends of hers) have become toxic due to a feeling on Mega’s part that they’ve been at the forefront of efforts to shut her out of what she sees as her rightful role in decision making—including, crucially, choosing who gets appointed to top government posts. Luhut is resented in many quarters—not just inside PDI-P—for concentrating power in his newly-created Presidential Staff Office. Mega is known to regard him with suspicion and jealousy.

Some delegates who spoke to myself and two ANU colleagues at the congress were taken aback by Mega’s forthrightness, while agreeing with the substance of her remarks. Others were openly delighted. As one regional official—himself a former staunch Jokowi supporter—said, ‘me and my colleagues were pleased. She voiced what all of us [in the party] were thinking…we feel we’ve gotten nothing from this government!’

It is indeed striking how disappointment with Jokowi seems to extend throughout the party. Regional officials complain about the lack of pork barrel projects being delivered to them. One attendee of a meeting between Jokowi and PDI-P’s provincial chiefs at the congress said the president was bombarded with demands for various public works projects to be fast-tracked, while an aide took notes. Lawmakers with policy agendas feel that the PDI-P parliamentary caucus is shut out by the administration. Elite figures feel that the party did not get its fair share of cabinet seats compared with other coalition partners.

Megawati speaking about her favourite topic—herself. (Photo: author)

Megawati speaking about her favourite topic—herself. (Photo: author)

I put it to a well-known PDI-P lawmaker (another former Jokowi-booster) that, leaving aside whether they have legitimate complaints about his leadership, the party does itself no favours by being seen to publicly humiliate Indonesia’s president. Why air one’s dirty laundry in public? The response: ‘well, we’ve tried to get the message across in private, but now you see it’s had to come to this’. Overwhelmingly, PDI-P insiders feel that Megawati gave what they typically described as a much-needed ‘reminder’ to Jokowi about his responsibilities to the party.

Even those privately scathing of PDI-P’s internal culture acknowledge that the Jokowi administration isn’t going to function if the relationship between the palace on the one hand, and the party and its leader on the other, becomes toxic. With this in mind, efforts are underway from PDI-P figures sympathetic to Jokowi to engineer more regular meetings between Megawati, party officials, and the president and his cabinet.

But is a lack of communication really the problem, and is more of it really the solution?

Despite Megawati’s attempts to present her political feuds as being based on principle, it’s almost always personal. Her sense of entitlement, jealousy, and ability to hold a grudge are legendary. The tension between her and Jokowi is not about policy—it’s about people. In this instance, it seems that her idea of ‘compromise’ is for the other party in the negotiation to capitulate entirely. ‘Communication’ is really a euphemism for obsequiousness.

Jokowi is put in an impossible position, then. If he dismisses the two ministers and curtails the powers of his chief of staff, the boneka (puppet) tag which has dogged him since his election will be stuck on him for good. And what happens thereafter when Megawati and PDI-P, their protest in Bali having had its effect, inevitably make further demands of him?

If he stands by his team—who, in the case of Rini and Andi, were foisted upon him by Megawati during the election campaign, yet have earned his respect and trust while their relationships with her have crumbled—then there seems to be no hope of reconciliation.

One couldn’t blame Jokowi for asking whether PDI-P is worth the trouble. If they want to act like an opposition party, then why not invite them do so from opposition? In her closing speech at the congress on Saturday, Megawati had one last thinly-veiled missive for the president: ‘if anyone doesn’t wan’t to be called a party functionary, then get out!

Careful what you wish for, Ibu.

……………

Liam Gammon is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change in the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

Thanks to Marcus Mietzner and Thomas Power for contributing to material used in this article.

If the title of this post seems cryptic to you, please consult this video for further explanation.