At 77, Megawati should allow for a change of guard in PDI-P

Frenemies: Megawati sharing a moment with Jokowi during the PDI-P’s national congress in Jakarta last September, as then presumptive presidential nominee Ganjar Pranowo (right) looks on. — JP/ANN

THIS month, Megawati Soekarnoputri is marking two important events: the 51st anniversary of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and her 77th birthday.

These two occasions could be used by party members as well as the general public to start a conversation on the issue of succession.

I predicted previously that Megawati would prefer President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to take over the party leadership, but that seems impossible now. Yet it also means that Megawati could settle for the next best candidate to succeed her: presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo, who can work alongside her daughter Puan Maharani and her son Prananda Prabowo as the party’s top executives.

If Megawati can make that decision soon enough, it could help the party’s standing ahead of the Feb 14 elections. In making that decision, the PDI-P matron could calm the party’s internal situation at the grassroots level as well as regain people’s trust, especially young voters who are put off by the party’s gerontocracy.

After all, the PDI-P stands a decent chance of losing to Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra Party. If the opinion surveys are correct, the defence minister is expected to defeat Ganjar hands down.

At the same time, Megawati now has to deal with President Jokowi as an adversary after he decided to allow his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to run as Prabowo’s vice president.

This was a severe about-face, as Megawati once considered Jokowi her successor. Still, it’s almost certain that she thought Jokowi had become too formidable a force to be entrusted with the party’s leadership.

Since Jokowi began his second term in 2019, it has been evident that Megawati and the PDI-P need Jokowi more than the President needs them. The tension came to a head last week, when the President opted to skip the PDI-P’s 51st anniversary celebration and instead went on a tour of several Asean countries to excuse his absence, knowing full well that he would be subjected to harsh words from Megawati yet again.

It has become customary for Megawati to use party events to recite a long list of Jokowi’s debts to the party. From the point of view of diplomacy, Jokowi’s Asean tour could be an embarrassment for the host countries, as it was nothing but an escape from an internal dispute within a political party that had catapulted him to the country’s highest office.

The Foreign Ministry must have worked very hard to find a justification for the President’s visits.

As for Megawati, she will probably have to face an unpleasant situation next month, with only herself to blame. And should the PDI-P suffer a blow in the presidential and legislative elections, its matriarch should be ready to answer some questions on accountability.

A poor electoral showing by the PDI-P would also be ultimate payback for President Jokowi, whom Megawati has repeatedly described as “a servant of the party”.

After all, Megawati has been leading the PDI-P for 31 years, since 1993, when she became a powerful symbol to unite the Opposition against then president Soeharto’s dictatorship. While Megawati was elected as the PDI-P chair that year, Soeharto refused to recognise her accession and three years later, in 1996, the strongman tried to oust Megawati by using the military. One year after Soeharto resigned, the PDI-P won the country’s first democratic election in 1999.

Megawati has achieved much during her long service: The PDI-P has won three out of five legislative elections and two presidential elections. But today, the country’s young voters are only familiar with her long and winding speeches, peppered with “arrogant” statements, including the one in which she pointed out that it was her prerogative to pick the party’s presidential candidates.

Without doubt, Megawati is the PDI-P’s supreme leader and holds absolute power. She has the final say on nearly everything except her successor, although we have reason to believe that she would be happy to see Puan and Prananda rising to the helm. For millions of her grassroots supporters, Megawati is a saviour of the nation and can do no wrong, even after she lost the presidential election twice to her former top security affairs minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was backed by his upstart Democratic Party. But Megawati also brought the PDI-P back as a winner in the 2014 and 2019 general elections.

She got the credit for choosing then Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as the party’s presidential ticket, and her gamble paid off when Jokowi won in 2014.

If the PDI-P does suffer a setback in the Feb 14 elections, will it be the result of a concerted effort by the President, hurt by long- standing humiliation, or because of a leader with absolute power staying too long at its helm?

The inconvenient truth is that the PDI-P needs a change in leadership for the sake of its internal democracy, especially in view of the Feb 14 elections. But it seems that no one in the party wants to have this difficult conversation.

The best gift Megawati could give to the PDI-P for her 77th birthday on Tuesday would be her assurance that she will start scaling back her role in the party to allow for the ascension of a younger generation of leaders.

Allowing Ganjar, Puan or Prananda to take on greater leadership roles would be a good start. – The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Kornelius Purba is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post

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