Behind every great man

Presidential running mates are usually seen as necessary appendages. Can Jusuf Kalla, Indonesia’s vice-president-elect, buck the trend?

Daniel Besant
September 2, 2014
Behind every great man
Jusuf Kalla was born on May 15, 1942 in Watampone, on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island. He was educated at the University of Hasanuddin, where he became a radical Islamist, although he has long embraced a multi-faith Indonesia. A successful businessman and politician, Kalla graduated from INSEAD, the prestigious French business school. Illustratration by Victor Blanco.

During the recent Indonesian election, most lenses and column inches were focused on charismatic plaid-shirted presidential hopeful Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, with nary a mention of his more soberly dressed running mate Jusuf Kalla. This came despite the fact that Kalla was the country’s vice-president from 2004-2009, was the heavyweight Golkar party’s candidate for the top spot in 2009, and in a 2012 poll was found to be voters’ third choice as their next president. 

Kalla hails from Bone Regency in South Sulawesi, not a place well known for fostering political heavyweights. “He’s not Javanese, so it was expected he would be a boon to the candidates’ electability in the outer islands,” said Thomas Power, a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. “As Makassar’s (the capital of South Sulawesi) most popular active politician, he was seen as important in securing Sulawesi and the East.”

As well as uniting disparate island voters, Kalla has strong social and religious networks that stem from his chairmanship of the Indonesian Red Cross and the Indonesian Mosque Council, as well as membership of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Islamic organisation. These links were crucial in supplementing “Jokowi’s lack of Islamic credentials”, according to Nico Harjanto, executive director of Jakarta’s Populi Centre.

Religious links aside, Kalla is no slouch as a businessman either. After taking over his father’s small import-export company, he has overseen its growth into sectors as diverse as construction, shipping and shrimp farming, both domestically and internationally. His skills in negotiation and knowing exactly when to make a move have proved crucial in his 27-year political career.

His time in public service doubtless caught the eye of political string-pullers too. Kalla is seen as having a pretty good track record in the planning and implementation of significant government projects ranging from electricity generation to airport expansion. “His businesslike approach in dealing with bureaucracy and government agencies will enable him to ensure that Jokowi’s programmes will be planned and executed in a timely and orderly manner,” said Harjanto.

And it is not just domestically that Kalla is seen as a boon for Jokowi. Indonesia’s next president is inexperienced on the international stage and considered a weaker negotiator than his second in command. “Kalla was viewed as instrumental in securing a settlement in Aceh,” said Power.

This is all well and good but, like in any partnership, there may well be some strains in Jokowi and Kalla’s political marriage. The pair come from vastly different political backgrounds – Kalla with links reaching back to the Suharto regime, Jokowi a relative newcomer – and there is also the generation gap to consider. Kalla is more pragmatic, “leans towards power-sharing and is less concerned about ideology”, according to Dinna Wisnu, a political scientist from Jakarta’s Paramadina Graduate School of Diplomacy.

Before the election, Jokowi and Kalla released their Nawacita, a nine-point programme outlining the intended areas of focus during their tenure. If they are to have any chance of realising these goals they must get the People’s Representative Council – one of the country’s two legislative assemblies – on side. However, uncooperative parliamentarians could stymie any attempts to pass laws, and Kalla may come in handy in fending off opposition attempts to block legislation by trying to influence Jokowi’s ruling Golkar Party. “Kalla would likely be instrumental in tackling any such effort by [opposition leader] Prabowo’s faction,” said Power. “He would primarily use his networks within Golkar to [quash] such a stance.”

Right now, however, Indonesia’s most pressing concern is the issue of fuel subsidies, which mainly benefit the rich. The country has long been urged to cut them in order to reduce its budget deficit, and the dynamic duo has pledged to tackle the matter within their first 100 days in office. Until now, attempts to pass the necessary legislation have met with protests, but Wisnu believes Kalla will strike while the iron is hot. “He is especially great at sensing the suitable time to introduce policy change,” she said. 

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