Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Transcending personality politics

Transcending personality politics

The election of Anas Urbaningrum suggests Partai Demokrat can survive without its founder, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Luke Barrett

   The leader that will be? Yudhoyono’s son, Ibas
   Luke Barrett

The constant chanting of 'Demokrat, Demokrat, SBY, SBY' by party members at the second Democratic Party (PD) congress, which took place in Bandung from 21-23 May, neatly described the dilemma facing the party. Most observers have painted PD as the personal vehicle of President Yudhoyono since his victory in the 2004 presidential elections. This interpretation explains PD's rise as the result of Yudhoyono's charismatic personality and his ability to reach voters through the mass media. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Yudhoyono is PD, and that with nothing to offer voters beyond its famous patron, the party is likely to vanish after Yudhoyono leaves the presidency in 2014. In this context, party members delivered a surprising result at the Bandung congress, with Yudhoyono's preferred candidate as party chairperson, the Minister for Youth and Sports, Andi Mallarangeng, and then second choice, House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie, both losing to the leader of the party's group in national parliament, Anas Urbaningrum. Such an outcome suggests that, internally if not yet electorally, the party is not merely the creature of its famous patron, but lives up to its 'democratic' title.

To any observer in the week prior to the Bandung congress, Anas's victory would have come as something of a surprise. If, as many claim, Indonesian politics is an arena for those with media, money and a strong political machine, then Andi Mallarangeng seemed to be the certain victor in the contest to become chairperson. Andi has been a prominent member of the Indonesian political elite since the fall of Suharto in 1998. He was a member of the 'Team of Seven' that was charged by the country's third President, B.J. Habibie, with drafting a package of new laws about political parties, elections and regional government in preparation for the first post-Suharto election in 1999. During those elections he served as a member of the general election commission (KPU). Andi was also a founding member of the United Democratic Nationhood Party (PPDK) in 2002, but left less than two years later to join PD. While there was widespread media coverage of all three candidates in the lead up to the congress, Andi was the most prominent, in terms of the number of both stories about his candidacy and advertisements supporting his campaign. This media blitz culminated in Andi having thousands of his campaign posters hung in the areas near the congress venue, as well as along Bandung's major streets and the highway leading to the city from Jakarta. Andi's media-heavy strategy, which was formulated with the help of Fox Indonesia, a media consulting company headed by his brothers Rizal and Choel, seemed designed as a test for the campaign he might run should he be chosen as PD's candidate for the presidential election in 2014.

Trying to build a sense of inevitability to his election, a major part of Andi's strategy was to emphasise his close links to Yudhoyono and to try to portray himself as the president's choice for the position. While Yudhoyono did not make a public statement in support of any of the candidates, the media reported the participation of a number of government ministers from PD in Andi's campaign team and the presence of the president's youngest son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono (Ibas), at Andi's campaign events, as clear signs of the president's wishes. And, when Andi launched a book about his vision for the party at Bandung's Sheraton Hotel the night before the congress opened, party officials told me about rumours that Yudhoyono himself was pressuring Anas to withdraw from the contest.

The heir apparent falters

Andi's strategy started to unravel almost as soon as the congress began. In a speech to the congress on the Saturday morning, which was much more alive and engaging than his dour performance in his opening address the previous night, Yudhoyono again refrained from endorsing any candidate for party chairperson. Instead, he explained that he respected the party's internal democracy, because the interests of the party were 'above any individual' such as himself, who was 'only the chairperson'. For that reason, Yudhoyono said that he would not sit in on the congress proceedings to ensure that he did not exercise too much influence, but that if conflict emerged, he was available to provide a solution.

   The blimp didn’t help: Andi’s campaign was lavish, but ineffective
   Luke Barrett

Yudhoyono apparently did not anticipate the ensuing debates to be so fiercely contested. From the very start of the congress, the discussion was bogged down in acrimony and debate on a procedural point: whether the election of the party's chairperson should take place before or after debate about the party's statutes. The debate turned into a test of strength between the candidates, with supporters of Anas and Marzuki carrying the day in favour of immediately electing the party chairperson. This issue was resolved in their favour by a vote on Saturday night, after almost ten hours of debate. While delegates continued their discussions after this vote, many other agenda items were rushed through as delegates turned their thoughts towards the election of a new chairperson.

As the final day of the congress began, the first agenda item was the re-election of Yudhoyono as the chairperson of the party's central guidance board, an event that occurred without debate or contestation. In his acceptance speech, which doubled as an opening address for the final day's events, Yudhoyono urged the contenders for chairperson to accept defeat and continue to work together for the interests of the party. He then left the hall, signaling to party delegates that they were free to vote as they chose. After the counting began in mid-afternoon, it was soon evident that the question was no longer whether or not Andi would win, but which of Marzuki and Anas would triumph, as the two built an overwhelming lead over the predicted victor. The first round of voting ended with Andi having received 82 votes, or 16 per cent of the total, while Marzuki obtained 209 votes (40 per cent) and Anas finished in the lead with 236 (45 per cent). After the congress chair allowed for one hour of further discussion prior to the final vote, Andi directed his supporters to back Marzuki, who was also said to be the favoured candidate of Yudhoyono in the run-off.

However, if Andi really did give such instructions, they were not obeyed by the delegates, with Anas winning the second round by a margin of 280 votes, 53 per cent of the total, to 248 for Marzuki (47 per cent). This victory provides evidence that PD is not simply beholden to the personal will of president Yudhoyono. At least, when Yudhoyono signals that party members are free to make up their own minds, they will take him at his word and not simply bend to what they see as his will.

A victory for democracy

The election for party chairperson illustrates that there is a burgeoning internal democracy within PD, though it is one that is still mixed with a dose of old-style patronage politics. One illustration of these contradictory trends was how all of the candidates made substantial efforts to win support from grassroots party members by paying for their travel to the convention, and for their hotel rooms, food and spending money while there. Yet it was obvious that Andi spent much more than his opponents on such activities, which became almost as integral as the use of media to his style of campaigning. Outside the convention venue, Andi even had a tent set up for his supporters where food and beverages were served during the day, along with musical entertainment and full massage treatments. However, Andi's strategy did not appeal directly to the PD members who were eligible to vote for the chairperson, even though it was generally effective with ordinary party members. As I talked with Andi supporters in the tent a few hours before the congress opened, I did not meet a single voting delegate, and only a few who had passes allowing them inside the hall where the congress would take place. The methods of populist campaigning with direct appeals to the 'masses' don't necessarily translate well to an internal party election.

   Party time: few of the people hanging out in Andi’s tent had voting rights
   Luke Barrett

Andi's defeat shows that PD's internal democracy is still largely dominated by the professional politicians who constitute the backbone of the party structure in the regions. The only party members actually allowed into the congress venue were those who were invited from PD's central, provincial and branch leadership boards, the central guidance board and the branches established by the party to represent members overseas. Furthermore, each of these levels of the party organisation had a different number of votes in the election for chairperson: the central guidance board was allocated five votes, the central leadership board three, provincial leadership boards two each, and district and overseas branches a single vote each. As such, the party had generally issued invitations to only the chairperson and treasurer of each party board, both of whom tended to be members of provincial or district legislatures or executive governments.

Anas and Marzuki emerged as the leading candidates precisely because of their hard work in building close relationships in this layer of middle-level party leaders. In canvassing for support amongst PD branches, both were able to draw on their previous experiences in navigating organisational, as opposed to image, politics. Anas had been chairperson of Indonesia's largest student organisation, HMI (Islamic Students Association), from 1997 until 1999, and retained a lot of good will amongst many of its former members who had later joined PD. Anas had also, unlike Andi, been a member of the PD central board since 2005, which allowed him to develop relationships with party officials throughout the country. He could rely on such people to support his candidacy as chairperson. Though Anas's networking skills were vital to his victory, he did not feel that networking alone would be sufficient to win; he also spent a substantial amount of money on television advertisements and banners.

Marzuki, on the other hand, who spent no money on media advertising and officially declared his candidacy only a day before the congress began, wholly focused on a strategy of internal party networking. Marzuki, after a stint as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, began working for a state-owned cement company in his home city of Palembang, becoming the director in 1999 and holding the position until 2006. After joining PD in 2003, Marzuki rose quickly to the post of secretary general, responsible for the party's administrative matters. He held this position from 2005 until 2009, enabling him to build a network of supporters throughout the party apparatus in a way that Andi, who was at that time the president's spokesperson and then a cabinet minister, could not. Many of Marzuki's supporters were lower-level party officials who wanted to repay a secretary-general whom they felt had taken a personal interest in their concerns.

An absent ideology

Anas's victory was a result of a campaign strategy that, in broad terms, focused on how to ensure that PD survives as an electoral force after Yudhoyono steps down from the presidency. In press conferences prior to the congress, Anas openly stated that PD would no longer be able to rely exclusively on Yudhoyono's image in 2014 and had to plan accordingly by becoming more strongly institutionalised. Anas's main promise in this regard was that he would decentralise the internal structure of PD to allow local party branches more control over matters such as the selection of candidates for local government elections. Such a move would significantly alter the existing party structure in which all decision-making power rests, whether officially or not, in the hands of Yudhoyono and a body called the high assembly (Majelis Tinggi). The assembly, established by the endorsement of delegates at the Bandung congress, is simply a further avenue for Yudhoyono to exercise his dominance over the party because, as its chair, he has the right to pick six out of its other eight members. The establishment of the Majelis Tinggi shows that there are contradictory trends within the party: on the one hand, centralisation of power in the hands of Yudhoyono, on the other, a strong desire for decentralisation on the part of many local branch leaders.

Yet at the congress, it was the promise of decentralisation that proved decisive to Anas's victory. The rancorous debate on the agenda which opened the congress becomes understandable from this perspective. The push to hold the election for party chairperson prior to the discussion of the party statutes was led by Anas's supporters. They hoped that, if Anas won, they would be able to rewrite the statutes in line with Anas's promises of decentralisation. This stratagem became clear after the election when congress participants divided into three commissions that were to discuss, respectively, the party's rules and structures, its ideological vision, and its strategy for the upcoming election period. The commission that focused on party rules and structures had the most attendees, and as soon as it opened, a number of participants voiced objections that the draft document was too centralistic and gave the central guidance board too much power. Others protested that, with only one hour allocated to the discussion, which was one third of what the initial program had allowed, there was not enough time to 'synchronise' the party structure with Anas's vision of devolved decision-making power. Still others called for the commission not to adopt the draft statutes and, instead, to recommend that the congress allow more time for discussions. Although the committee members eventually agreed on a compromise recommendation that the document be adopted in principle and rewritten later with a greater emphasis on decentralisation, this solution provided yet another example of party leaders being democratically out-manouvered by ordinary delegates.

   The leader that is: Yudhoyono chose not to intervene in the party leadership election
   Luke Barrett

The strong support for Anas's program of decentralisation is especially interesting in light of how little the three candidates discussed substantive ideological or programmatic issues during the congress. In fact, Anas's proposal for decentralisation of the party's internal structures was the only substantive aspect from any of the candidate's programs, which were instead full of vague phrases about 'modernisation' of party structures or how to develop PD as 'middle party', without any detailed explanation of what these terms meant. Party members did express loyalty towards the 'nationalist-religious' and 'middle party' formulations which Yudhoyono has used to depict PD as a party that adheres to neither political Islam nor secular nationalism, but occupies a position somewhere between the two. Yet no one, including Yudhoyono, outlined what these phrases meant in terms of a precise political agenda for Indonesia. One observer told me that, in contrast to the commission that deliberated the party's rules and structures, there was no controversy, and not even much debate, in the commission that discussed PD's ideology.

A strong personality

We should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that PD has become completely democratic internally. Though the outcome reflected the views held by party members, Yudhoyono was re-elected as chairperson of the central guidance board by acclamation rather than a formal vote. Also, just as Anas's victory began to look increasingly likely, rumours began to circulate that Yudhoyono's son, Ibas, would become the next secretary-general of PD, despite his youth and limited political experience. While some observers dismissed this possibility, the rumours intensified in the weeks after the congress, with media outlets reporting favourable comments about Ibas's candidacy by senior party figures, including Anas. Ibas's appointment to the post was announced to the media on June 22.

We can see from the Bandung congress that PD and its patron face a paradoxical future. The rejection of Yudhoyono's favoured candidate, as well as his own lack of interference in congress deliberations are encouraging signs that the party may be able to outlive its founder. However, much will depend on whether Yudhoyono himself is ready to let 'Demokrat, Demokrat' move beyond the phenomenon of 'SBY, SBY'.

Luke Barrett (lbarrett33@gmail.com) in 2009 wrote an honours thesis at the Australian National University about Indonesian party politics. He wishes to thank PD for generously providing access to all sessions of its congress and Marcus Mietzner for arranging access and for his input.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

Latest Articles

Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

The Jokowi-Luhut alliance


A business alliance forged in 2008 between Joko Widodo and Luhut Pandjaitan formed the basis for a major axis in his presidency

An EV-fix for mining


Nickel’s ‘green development’ boost to resource nationalism

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.