“William Lidle was right in 2004 to describe Indonesian voters as pemilih cinta monyet — easy to fall victim to political puppy love”

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has recently been urged to continue leading the Democratic Party beyond 2015. Didik Mukrianto, its faction secretary in the House of Representatives, said that the former president had successfully led the country for a decade.

“That is proof of the fact that nobody can beat him and no other party member has the same qualifications,” he said. Didik believed Yudhoyono was the best candidate to boost the party’s image ahead of the 2019 legislative election and his optimism was shared by Syarief Hasan, of the Democratic Party’s national leadership board. “Party members want a leader who can unite the party and help us win the 2019 elections,” Syarief said.

I’ve raised this issue with other senior Democrats, and indeed, they all agree that Yudhoyono is a unifying figure — just like Megawati Soekarnoputri at the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) or Surya Paloh at the National Democratic Party (NasDem).

And if we dig a little deeper into the nation’s political history, this makes perfect sense. The Democratic Party is not an ideological party, such as the Indonesian National Party (PNI) of Sukarno, the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) of Sutan Sjahrir, Tan Malaka’s Murba Party or the movement initiated by Dutch communist Henk Sneevliet in 1914.

Just to remind us, as a nationalist party, PNI was founded in 1927 by leaders like Cipto Mangunkusumo, Sartono, Iskaq Tjokrohadisuryo and Sunaryo. Students, members of Algemeene Studie Club, chaired by Sukarno, also belonged to the party. Under Sukarno the PNI became mainstream. In terms of nation and state bulding, the party struggled for and defended nationalist democracy as the only viable ideology for Indonesia and refused the idea of theocracy in its various manifestations.

Nor is the Democratic Party of today based on organized interests, such as Suharto’s Golkar Party, which was formed as a socio-political organization in 1964. Instead, the Democratic Party was born purely in response to the social and political circumstances after 1998.

This reform period after the fall of Suharto had three main characteristics.

First, in the early years after Suharto’s fall people saw no significant changes. The civilian regime failed to realize concrete changes that improved people’s lives, strenghtened democratic politics or boosted civil society.

Second, the military was ordered back to the barracks, but in fact remained a crucial political force behind the scene. The presence of many military generals in politics has proven the hypothesis that civil parties in post-Suharto politics still depend heavily on military figures. In a way, civilian supremacy exists only on paper.

Third, strong leadership was a necessary requirement in the transition period as a means to achieving a strong state. Until 2004, we saw the unstable civilian regimes fall victim to inter-elite conflicts. This situation provided an opportunity for the Democratic Party to emerge as the new rising star. The imposing figure of Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono served as a magnet in that time.

He appeared to be the answer to people’s questions about strong national leadership. As a military figure, people saw Yudhoyono as a good alternative to the civilian leaders who continued to be shaken by political turbulence. His charming, intelligent, assertive, and polite personality was considered as an ideal combination, comprising both parochialism — the dominant political culture — and the spirit of modern democracy based on a meritocratic system.

Ahead of the 2004 presidential election, Yudhoyono’s lovability clearly was on the rise. He took on mainstream figures like Megawati, Wiranto — another former general — and Amien Rais. Yudhoyono became the star and won.

However, as time went by, a different image emerged. Yudhoyono turned out not to be the messiah that many thought he was. Moreover, political corruption became widespread in his party. But voters did not blame Yudhoyono for this, they put all the blame on the shoulders of party cadres. And Yudhoyono was re-elected as president in 2009.

The American political scientist William Lidle was right in 2004 to describe Indonesian voters as pemilih cinta monyet — easy to fall victim to political puppy love. Love was truly blind both in 2004 and in 2009. But then there was no more love left. After his ten years in power, people simply were disappointed: from more than 20 percent of the vote in 2009, the Democrats dropped to just 10.19 percent in 2014.

After such a harsh punishment, the party is now facing factionalization, which is ultimately a consequence of it lacking an ideological basis. Power is concentrated in Yudhoyono’s hands. But now that he holds no more power in politics, the cadres are trying to find new shelter.

Yudhoyono has good intuition. He knows very well that there is no genuine loyalty in politics. That is why he decided to lead the party in 2013. He wanted to save the party and secure his power beyond 2014. This is not just a case of post-power syndrome, but also about the people around him. His son Edhie Baskoro is being mentioned in connection with the oil and gas graft scandal that brought down Jero Wacik, a senior Democrat and former energy and mineral resources minister. Faced with this nightmare, holding on to power is a tactical choice to save the dynasty and keep his cadres loyal.

We don’t need to ask whether the Democrats beyond 2015 are about either politics or family. The combination of the two could very well be the true identity of the party. But whatever happens, Yudhoyono’s recent maneuver to approach President Joko Widodo is another attempt at salvation. To survive, the Democrats need to belong to the ruling elite.

Boni Hargens is a political analyst at the University of Indonesia (UI) and coordinator at Lembaga Pemilih Indonesia.