By Kate Lamb and Ananda Teresia
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Days before candidates officially register for Indonesia’s elections, a game-changing ruling by the nation’s constitutional court has sparked concern over the integrity of the vote in the world’s third-largest democracy.
On Monday, the court removed the 40 years minimum age requirement for presidential or vice-presidential candidates if they had previously been elected to regional posts, potentially opening the way for President Joko Widodo’s 36-year-old son to contest.
The ruling, issued by a court headed by the president’s brother-in-law, has raised fears of a resurgence of patronage politics in a country that only 25 years ago emerged from the authoritarian rule of strongman leader Suharto.
“I don’t think there is a single person in Indonesia who wasn’t aware the application was fundamentally about whether the president’s son could run as a vice presidential candidate,” said Tim Lindsey, an expert in Indonesian law at the University of Melbourne.
The court and the presidential palace did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Southeast Asian nation will hold simultaneous presidential and legislative election on Feb. 14 next year. Jokowi, as the president is known, is ineligible to run after serving the maximum two terms.
But Monday’s ruling paves the way for his eldest son and mayor of Surakarta city, Gibran Rakabuming Raka.
The decision comes amid rampant speculation the president – once lauded for breaking the mould of the Suharto-era old guard – is lining up his son to become the vice-presidential running mate of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is now leading in the polls.
Gibran is one of the strongest potential running mates for Prabowo, an official at the former general’s Gerindra party said on Tuesday.
Analysts say Jokowi’s support will provide a significant boost for Prabowo, Suharto’s former son-in-law and also the son of a former cabinet minister.
The Indonesian leader was earlier seen likely to be hedging his bets between the top two contenders for president, but the analysts said the court decision implies he will back Prabowo.
Prabowo, 72, lost to Jokowi in the previous two presidential elections.
“It’s a scandalous decision because many Indonesians see it as the court losing independence, and a conflict of interest and intimidation leading it to allow the current president, who can’t sit for a third term, make up for that by building a dynasty,” said Lindsey.
The decision, said Bivitri Susanti of Indonesia’s Jentera School of Law, was “worse than Suharto”.
As the popular leader of the Southeast Asia’s largest economy, analysts say Jokowi has been manoeuvring behind the scenes to safeguard his legacy and extend his influence beyond his term in office.
An adept political operator, Jokowi may be betting that his high approval ratings will help him weather any backlash, but Goenawan Mohamad, founder of investigative magazine Tempo, said that was a gamble set to fail.
“In 2024, Jokowi will not be at the centre of power. He will not be a lame-duck power, he will be a dodo. It is hubris to think that his popularity will stay intact, or his son will survive the political revenge,” he said.
What is remarkable, analysts say, is that Jokowi has managed to stay so popular despite critics pointing to a trend of democratic regression, including the weakening of state institutions.
Judge Saldi Isra, one of four dissenting judges in the nine-judge bench that issued Monday’s rulings, said he was perturbed by the seemingly contradictory stands taken by his colleagues, who previously rejected similar petitions.
“This is the first time that I came across an extraordinarily strange event, which can be described as beyond the limits of fair reasoning,” he said.
Elections in Indonesia are often colourful and boisterous, and invariably followed by election disputes, applications for which are filed at the constitutional court.
“The court decision has destroyed the people’s trust in an independent judiciary and any future political dispute will easily tear the country apart,” said Tempo’s Goenawan.
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading English-language daily, said in an editorial: “We must raise a red flag over the probity of the upcoming election. The game appears rigged to give certain players the upper hand.”
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)