Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) and PDI-P matron and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri don't see eye to eye on Israel, among other matters. Image: Twitter / Screengrab

JAKARTA – As social media erupted in anger over Indonesia losing the right to host the International Federation of Association Football’s (FIFA) Under-20 World Cup, a long-time foreign resident took a poll among eight of his younger Indonesian relatives about the debacle that has disappointed a nation.

All opposed the ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle’s (PDI-P) stance in calling for Israel to be banned from the tournament – and all blamed party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri for the inevitable consequences of mixing politics with sport. 

If that is a true measure of the public reaction, the former president may have badly miscalculated the political impact it could have on the country’s largest party only 11 months out from the February 14, 2024, presidential and legislative elections.

Certainly, the issue appeared to widen an open split between Megawati and President Joko Widodo, with the 76-year-old matriarch missing from a well-publicized April 2 meeting between Widodo and seven of the nine governing coalition party leaders.

There, the president said he agreed with the idea of a grand alliance consisting of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Golkar, the National Awakening (PKB), National Mandate (PAN) and United Development (PPP) parties.

That would have the effect of isolating PDI-P and its prospective presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo, 54, the Central Java governor who up until now has appeared to be Widodo’s anointed successor.

Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo is leading in polls ahead of next year’s presidential election. Image: Twitter

In imposing the Israel ban, Megawati was acting true to form, obsessed with preserving and perhaps re-inventing the legacy of her father, founding president Sukarno, the architect of Indonesia’s anti-colonialism foreign policy which places Palestinian independence as one of its cornerstones.

It now transpires that she conveyed her position during what has been described as a rancorous meeting with Widodo at the Bogor presidential palace on March 18, three days before it became publicly known.

In an extraordinary “concession,” Megawati said she would agree to Israel either shifting their matches to Singapore or playing in Indonesia before empty stands and without the Israeli flag or national anthem, options that were both out of the question.

Never missing an opportunity to belittle President Widodo, she made no public statement herself, leaving it first to Bali Governor I Wayan Koster and then to Pranowo to declare the party’s objection just weeks before the tournament was due to kick off.

That put both men squarely in the firing line, with critics focusing their ire on Pranowo, who for more than a year now has topped the presidential electability surveys ahead of Prabowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. 

Analysts suspect the two governors were either acting under instructions – as Koster claimed – or simply felt compelled to support the party line. But that comes as little surprise given the iron grip Megawati has always maintained over PDI-P.

Either way, Megawati is reported to have chosen chess-playing Central Java legislator Utut Adianto, 58, to pass the word of her decision to Koster and Pranowo and presumably to the rest of the “Red Bull” party membership.

House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani (L) and leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) Megawati Sukarnoputri are trying to keep the Sukarno family atop Indonesian politics. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

Bali and the Central Java city of Solo, Widodo’s hometown, are PDI-P strongholds and were scheduled to serve as two of the six World Cup venues, which also included Palembang in South Sumatra, Jakarta, Bandung and the East Java port city of Surabaya.

While Bandung is the province capital of West Java, the center of hard-line Muslim support for Palestine, Islamist leaders have remained strangely silent on the issue and as late as March 13 Bandung officials were keenly welcoming the event.

Indeed, alienating millions of football fans seemed to far outweigh any backing PDI-P could have expected from Muslim conservatives, the majority of whom already support the opposition Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), Baswedan’s main base of support.

“Those who have caused this furor and made Indonesia lose the World Cup must apologize and be held accountable,” said football commentator Akmal Marhali, echoing the storm of condemnation on social media from mostly youthful voters.

Fuelling the outrage is why PDI-P waited until the last minute to raise an objection, forcing FIFA to hurriedly withdraw Indonesia’s hosting rights and, by most accounts, move the May 20-June 11 tournament to either Peru or Argentina.

After all, Israel has often participated in sporting and diplomatic events in Indonesia before, the latest occasion being the four Israelis who competed in the first round of the UCI Track Cycling Nations Cup in Jakarta in February.

Early last year, an Israeli delegation attended the 144th Assembly of the Inter-parliamentary Union conference in Bali, where they were warmly welcomed by Maharani and Koster, according to media reports.

Then in July, a second delegation of young leaders and entrepreneurs carrying non-Israeli passports spent five days in and around Jakarta exploring the potential for investment, start-up ventures and social impact initiatives.

Although there is little likelihood of the two countries establishing formal relations until Palestine wins independence, they have long had covert ties, most notably among tight-lipped military and intelligence officials dating back to 1979 when Indonesia quietly bought 16 Skyhawk attack jets from Israel.

Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative himself, only said he was sure the World Cup fiasco would not be the end of football development across Indonesia. “We shouldn’t lose our enthusiasm, like it’s the end of the world,” he said.

مشجعو فريق برسيب في 2014 صورة: فيسبوك
Indonesian football fans in a file photo. Image: Facebook

But it was for disconsolate members of Indonesia’s Under-20 team, whose tearful reaction underlined a sad reality: as the home side they had automatically qualified for a showcase event that, for now at least, was otherwise beyond them.

Widodo met with the players at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, ironically named after Sukarno, to commiserate after 18-year-old striker Hokky Caraka was even forced to apologize for critical remarks he made in a social media posting.

Jazilul Fawaid, deputy leader of fourth-ranked PKB, the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said angry fans “will be sure to take note of figures and political parties” who played a part in the debacle.

Although he was reportedly seething, Widodo took it on the chin. Declaring himself to be “sad and disappointed,” he told reporters: “But don’t waste our energy by blaming each other. As a great nation, we must look forward, not back.”

It now remains to be seen whether the fallout creates a slow burn in the popularity of Pranowo and PDI-P, which won 19.3% of the vote in the 2019 elections, or whether it will eventually be forgotten as the campaign starts to heat up.

As Widodo’s first choice, Pranowo was clearly in a tight spot. Megawati has yet to appoint him the PDI-P candidate, even though the only other contender, her daughter and House Speaker Puan Maharani, has an electability rating in the low single digits.

But Pranowo’s support for the ban has led to speculation whether Widodo will stick with him or shift his full support to Prabowo, a retired three-star general who isn’t vulnerable to Megawati’s whims, even if he has been careful not to alienate her.

A wily strategist, Widodo had already been sending out mixed signals. Only recently he appeared on the front pages of the domestic media observing the seasonal rice harvest with Pranowo and Prabowo in Kebumen on Central Java’s south coast.

Muhammad Qodari, the executive director of pollster Indo Barometer, said the optics suggested Widodo is keeping his options open. “In this context,” he said, “there is a possibility there may be only one name left, that of Prabowo Subianto.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) shakes hands with Chairman of Gerindra Party Prabowo Subianto after Jokowi was sworn in for a second term as president at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Photo: AFP / Pool / Achmad Ibrahim

If he is a confirmed candidate, it would be Prabowo’s third shot at the title after failed campaigns in 2014 and again in 2019 when Widodo – in what was widely regarded as a political master-stroke – chose the former general as his defense minister.

It is a job he has relished, despite failing to secure the financing needed to modernize the air force and navy because of the priorities the president has placed on big-ticket infrastructure spending and on moving the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan.

That in itself poses a quandary for Widodo. For all of Megawati’s overbearing influence, commentators believe Pranowo is much more likely to build on his predecessor’s legacy than Prabowo, who appears less enthusiastic about the US$33 billion capital-moving venture despite being bound by existing law to continue it.