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Widodo's archrival seeks rematch for Indonesian presidency

Political maneuvers, populist policies appear early ahead of 2019 election

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, likely will face off again with opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, right, in the April 2019 presidential election.   © Reuters/Antara

JAKARTA -- President Joko Widodo appears likely to face his archrival again as former Army Gen. Prabowo Subianto declared Wednesday his intention to run in Indonesia's presidential election next year.

The opposition leader won unanimous support from members of the Greater Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra -- which he founded and chairs.

"As long as I can still fight and [am] trusted by Gerindra, whatever duty the party gives me I will do it well," Subianto said before hundreds of party cadres during a televised session of Gerindra's national meeting Wednesday in the West Java province city of Bogor. "Should the party mandate me to run in the next presidential election, then I'm ready to carry out that duty."

Gerindra, Indonesia's third-largest party, controls only 13% of seats in the lower house of parliament. But its ally, the Prosperous Justice Party -- known for its conservative Muslim base -- looks set to back Subianto. The two parties combined hold just enough seats to meet the 20% threshold required to nominate the nation's president.

Subianto's proclamation had been expected after the governing Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, declared its support for Widodo's re-election bid during its national meeting in February.

Political maneuvering has since intensified -- including by Widodo, who has met with leaders of other parties in the ruling coalition as well as with outsiders -- even though the elections commission does not open registration for presidential nominees until August.

The president met last month with the chairman of the Golkar Party, Indonesia's oldest party and a member of the ruling coalition. Widodo wore a yellow shirt, Golkar's signature color, during the meeting. He also asked the Democratic Party's Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to stand beside him during the opening of that party's congress last month.

Widodo has issued no statement indicating his preference, but both gestures are seen by many as his way of inviting the politicians to join the deep race for the vice presidential bid. Leaders of other parties in the governing coalition, including the National Awakening Party and the United Development Party, have openly expressed their wish to become Widodo's running mate.

The 2014 presidential election was a heated two-way race that Widodo won by a thin margin over Subianto. Recent polls suggest the president, with his popular infrastructure development program, holds a dominant lead over other candidates. But four years ago Subianto had quickly closed the gap in popularity ratings against Widodo just a few months ahead of election day.

Observers see the early declarations as efforts by parties to sway voters in the June election of governors, mayors and regents in 171 administrative regions -- nearly one-third of Indonesia's total regions. Voters are expected to elect regional heads who will support their favorite presidential candidates in next year's election.

Amid the looming elections, Widodo has backtracked from his reform agenda with a string of populist policies, most notably in the energy sector. Despite rising costs globally, Widodo instructed state oil and gas company Pertamina not to raise subsidized fuel prices. The energy ministry plans to issue a regulation soon requiring retailers, including foreign companies like Total and Shell, to secure government approval to raise prices of non-subsidized fuel.

State utility Perusahaan Listrik Negara has similar instructions against raising electricity tariffs despite rising coal prices. The ministry recently issued a policy requiring coal miners to sell their coal to PLN at a fixed price determined by the government.

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