SOLO, Indonesia -- To the surprise of many observers, Indonesia's main opposition party won only half the votes it had expected in the country's April 9 legislative elections. A setback for "Indonesia's Obama," front-runner Joko Widodo, the result is both an opportunity and a challenge for the other candidates.
Before the vote, public attention centered on Widodo, the Jakarta governor known as Jokowi who was widely expected to succeed Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as Indonesia's next president.
Widodo's candidacy was meant to give the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) a boost ahead of the parliamentary vote, which saw a 75% turnout from more than 180 million voters across the sprawling archipelago.
Widodo himself has been riding high in opinion polls, drawing more than 40% approval since the PDI-P announced in March he would be its presidential candidate -- numbers that point to a landslide in the July presidential vote. On the back of the "Jokowi factor," the party aimed to win close to 40% in last week's legislative elections but preliminary results put the tally at closer to 19%. The official tally is due in May.
Widodo's rapid political ascent -- from popular mayor of Solo, his hometown in central Java, to governor of Jakarta, and now, to presidential hopeful -- has seen him compared to Barack Obama, who incidentally spent part of his youth in Indonesia. The two men even look alike, although Widodo wields more of a common touch, with his surprise visits to slums and easy intimacy with voters.
"Jokowi is seen as a new brand of candidate, one who is relatively new to politics and popular because of his service record, not his political legacy," said Michelle Bekkering of the International Republican Institute, a Washington think tank.
Bread and butter
But support for Widodo failed to give the PDI-P the boost it was hoping for. "I like Jokowi, he will be a good president," said Nur Shahid, a property agent in Solo, ahead of the parliamentary poll. "But in these elections, I will vote PPP (United Development Party)." The PPP is among five Islamic parties that collectively won about 30% of the April 9 vote in an unexpectedly strong showing, although many believe the five will be unable to come up with a presidential candidate.
In a country where more than 70 lawmakers have been caught taking bribes since 2002, concerns about corruption and red tape are cited by voters such as Nur Shahid. His preference for religious parties reflects the desire for a more clear-cut -- and generally cleaner -- alternative to mainstream politics.
"If you ask a voter what is the difference between the Democrat Party, the Golkar, the PDI-P, they cannot say, they all seem to want to be centrist, but have no ideology," said Kennedy Muslim of polling group Indikator Politik Indonesia.
Widodo's hands-on approach to problem-solving seems to have convinced nearly half of all Indonesians that he is the man to run the world's fourth biggest country. "Jokowi, he (came) here, he clean(ed) the place up. Now traffic can move," said Mulyaddin, who operates a motorcycle taxi in the Tanah Abang district of Jakarta. One of Widodo's initiatives as governor was to relocate street vendors from the nearby intersection, one of the capital's choke points, and house them in a nearby compound.
Party of one
Such practical initiatives boosted support for Widodo ahead of the parliamentary poll but did not help his party much. "The Jokowi effect can only (have an) influence in the level of national communication. As for the legislative election, it can only give small influence," said Priyo Budi Santoso, deputy speaker of Indonesia's parliament.
Other opinion polls ahead of the election show that party leaders can fare quite differently than their parties. Golkar, the dominant party in Indonesia during dictator Suharto's long reign up to 1998, polled well ahead of its presidential candidate, tycoon Aburizal Bakrie. Similarly, back in 2009, the 60% share of the presidential vote won by Yudhoyono was triple what his Democratic Party won in legislative elections.
Nonetheless, other presidential candidates scent an opportunity in the weaker-than-expected showing of Widodo's party. Shortly before voting booths closed at 1 p.m., Bakrie, surrounded by Golkar party officials, sat watching early results at the party's headquarters in west Jakarta. He speculated the PDI-P had been overly confident going into the vote. "They expected to win 35% or more of the vote, just because of one person."
The other main presidential hopeful, former general Prabowo Subianto, said he was still optimistic about his prospects. "Have you gone to my rallies? You should ask the Indonesian people. We are focusing on the elections and our own campaign," Prabowo said in an interview after a Muslim prayer rally in Jakarta, where he shared a prayer mat with Suryadharma Ali, the PPP leader and a key ally.
While some parties have already formed alliances, such as Prabowo's Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and the PPP, last week's inconclusive poll result means the main parties are seeking coalition partners to back their candidates' presidential bids.
Eyes on the presidency
Only after final results of the April 9 ballot are released in May will presidential candidates be formally declared. But it is likely that there will be three candidates competing for the top office -- Widodo, Prabowo and Bakrie.
"It's possible, based on the quick counts, to anticipate three big coalitions instead of just two," said Evan A. Laksmana of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
"Two big coalitions -- one centering around Jokowi and the other around Prabowo -- may be possible only when Golkar and one more party with a vote above 7% to 10% join one or the other. Otherwise, a three-way race is more likely," Laksmana said.
Already the National Democratic Party, led by media owner Surya Paloh, has pledged to back Widodo, an alliance that could give him the numbers he needs to ensure his place in the presidential ballot. A survey conducted by the Freedom Foundation, a Jakarta research institute, suggested former Golkar leader Jusuf Kalla as a possible vice presidential running mate for Widodo, a ticket that could split the Golkar vote and draw support away from Bakrie.
But to capitalize on his popularity in the coming presidential campaign, Widodo must assert himself internally -- against PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, said Wimar Witoelar, a political commentator and former government spokesman.
Megawati, a former president and daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, stood back to support Widodo's run for president, but remained a prominent figure in the legislative campaign. "Jokowi has to use the Jokowi factor, and get beyond the 'Mega' baggage," Witoelar said, using the former president's nickname.
"He should have plenty of support compared with Prabowo and Bakrie, but has to also contend with the fact that the PDI-P does not have the network or organization to campaign across the nation, unlike the Golkar or Gerindra," said Witoelar.
Despite these shortcomings, the PDI-P came out of the April 9 poll as the biggest party, prompting many to conclude that the presidency remains Widodo's to lose.
"We just need a new person," said Evert Loho, who voted at Taman Suropati park in Jakarta, in the same booth where Widodo cast his own ballot. Loho, like nearly half his compatriots, wants to see the cheerful, flesh-pressing Jakarta governor become Indonesia's next president.
Ultimately, according to Marcus Mietzner, a professor at Australian National University, the latest elections "have not so much cast doubt on Jokowi's ability to win. Rather, they have changed the dynamics of the coalition with which he will be forced to govern."