Inside Story

Indonesia on the knife’s edge

The outside world should be worried by the possibility that Prabowo Subianto could become Indonesian president, writes Edward Aspinall, but the biggest losers will be Indonesia’s own people

Edward Aspinall 17 June 2014 4674 words

Stark choice: election posters on display in Semarang, Indonesia, earlier this month. W.F. Srihardian/AAP Image

Also available in Bahasa at New Mandala

Indonesia’s presidential election on 9 July will determine not only the future government of the country but also the fate of its democracy. Over the past decade and a half, Indonesia has been the democratic success story of Southeast Asia. Thailand has lurched back to its tradition of military coups, and Malaysia and Singapore have languished under semi-democratic regimes, but Indonesian democracy looked like it was striking deep roots. Nobody would claim that the country didn’t have serious political problems – chief among them, pervasive corruption – but its many achievements include the evolution of a robust media, the sidelining of the military from daily political life, a strong culture of open electoral competition, and significant devolution of power and finances to the regions.

Now, the country faces a stark choice that could determine not only the health of Indonesian democracy, but perhaps even whether it survives. The two candidates running in this election embody very different aspects of Indonesia’s recent political history, and they promise to take the country in very different directions.

The choice

The leading candidate is Joko Widodo (usually known as Jokowi). Politically, he is purely a product of the new democratic era. A political nobody at the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transformation, he came to prominence by being elected twice as the mayor of the Central Java city of Solo and then once as governor of Jakarta – a pathway to national power that would have been impossible under the old authoritarian system. Known for a low-key, meet-the-people style of interacting with constituents, he comes from a humble background, though he achieved success as a furniture exporter prior to entering politics. His style of governing emphasises bureaucratic reform, improved service delivery, expanded social welfare services and a consensus-based approach to resolving social conflict.

Though we don’t really know Jokowi’s views on many critical issues (such as how to resolve the conflict in Papua), he would be the first president without firsthand experience of official politics in the authoritarian period and, arguably, the most reformist president yet. While we would not expect dramatic change under his leadership, he would pay patient attention to strengthening Indonesia’s democratic institutions and getting the wheels of Indonesia’s massive bureaucracy turning more smoothly, and more cleanly.

Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s only rival in a two-candidate race, has promised to respect Indonesia’s democracy. But there is much in his personal history, his rhetoric, and his political style to suggest that a Prabowo presidency would pose a significant threat of authoritarian reversal. In contrast to Jokowi, Prabowo is one of the purest imaginable products of the authoritarian New Order regime (1966–98) of President Suharto. One of a handful of leading military generals by the time of Suharto’s fall from office, he was the son of an important early New Order economics minister and was married to Suharto’s daughter, Titiek. Prabowo’s younger brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, like many of the children of former New Order officials, went into business, while Prabowo was groomed for a career in the army. Hashim is now one of Indonesia’s richest men, as well the chief bankroller of Prabowo’s presidential ambitions. Prabowo himself is also extremely wealthy, living on a luxurious private ranch where, among other things, he keeps a stable of expensive horses. The brothers, it should be noted, have primarily become rich in rent-seeking parts of the economy, such as timber and other natural resources.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Prabowo enjoyed an unusually rapid rise through the ranks of the army under the patronage of his father-in-law. In the mid to late 1990s, when the New Order began to fray and civilian reformers tried to work out who in the army might be sympathetic to democratic change, nobody counted Prabowo among the potential reformers. Instead, he was a leader of the palace guard and, in the final months of the regime, was in charge of a dirty war–style campaign to abduct anti-government activists, several of whom remain missing to this day. President Habibie dismissed Prabowo as commander of the Army’s Strategic Reserves the day after Suharto resigned, 22 May 1998, when it was reported to him that Prabowo was moving his troops close to the presidential palace without the approval of the Armed Forces Commander. Prabowo was discharged from the military for his role in the kidnapping of the activists and for other transgressions.

Since the early 2000s, after a period abroad, Prabowo has worked hard to build a political career. From the start he focused on the goal of winning the presidency. He first tried to win the nomination of Golkar (the electoral vehicle of the old New Order regime) as its presidential candidate in 2004. When this plan failed, he decided to form his own personal vehicle, the Gerindra (Greater Indonesia Movement) party, an organisation with the sole goal of taking its leader to the presidential palace. In 2009, he ran as a vice-presidential candidate alongside Megawati Sukarnoputri, but at that time, too, he made it clear that his ultimate goal was the presidency. Although Gerindra achieved just 11.8 per cent of the popular vote in this year’s legislative election, Prabowo was the only other potential presidential candidate who came even close to Jokowi in the public opinion polls. He was eventually able to pull together a coalition of five major parties to nominate him as its presidential candidate.

A year ago, it seemed that Jokowi would win the presidency without serious challenge. He was a media sensation, and his popularity ratings far outstripped other potential candidates. In the last six months, however, Prabowo’s campaign has surged. Though Jokowi still maintains a lead it has narrowed dramatically, and is now in single figures. Nobody now takes a Jokowi victory for granted. In such a context, we need to think seriously about what underpins Prabowo’s growing appeal, and what a Prabowo presidency might mean for Indonesia.

The Prabowo challenge

How can we explain the rapid rise in support for Prabowo? One explanation is that Jokowi’s campaign has been poorly organised, as has been argued persuasively by ANU academic Marcus Mietzner. Prabowo’s effort, by contrast, has been single-minded and massively funded from the start. His brother Hashim has pumped in untold millions and, since his polling has improved, Prabowo has also been able to extract major funds from other Indonesian oligarchs and political allies. He has also gained the support of two of Indonesia’s main media tycoons, whose television channels have flagrantly campaigned in favour of him: Prabowo even appeared at the final of Indonesian Idol to award the prize to the winner. (To be fair, the news channel owned by another tycoon, Surya Paloh, has been almost equally biased in favour of Jokowi.) An army of paid social media workers floods the cyberworld with pro-Prabowo material and counter negative stories about him; the electronic media has for many months been similarly flooded with advertisements extolling his virtues.

It is also increasingly obvious that elements of Prabowo’s styling and message appeal strongly to a part of the Indonesian population. Prabowo has presented himself in a way that distinguishes him starkly from other members of Indonesia’s political elite. Part of this is visual: Prabowo’s campaign rallies involve a large element of pageantry, with marching bands and military-style parades; he dresses himself in uniforms that evoke Sukarno and other nationalist heroes from the 1940s and 1950s; he even uses old-fashioned microphones that look like those used decades ago by Sukarno. In addition to these stylistic elements, however, there are at least three features that distinguish Prabowo from other mainstream Indonesian politicians.

First is the nature of his message. Prabowo promotes an amalgam of nationalist and populist themes reminiscent of demagogic politicians the world over. In all his campaign speeches he stresses, first and foremost, nationalism, saying that Indonesia is a country of great natural riches that has for too long been exploited – even enslaved – by foreigners. Indonesia’s riches are being sucked out to benefit outsiders and it is time, he says, for the country to stand on its own feet and reclaim its dignity and self-respect. He also talks at length about the plight of the poor, and how they suffer as a result of corruption, neoliberalism, neocapitalism, foreign interference and various other ills. Indonesia’s riches are stolen from the Indonesian people; it is time for them to be reclaimed and enjoyed by all Indonesian.

Nothing in this so far is particularly unusual: economic nationalism, concern for the plight of the “little people” and condemnation of corruption are all standard tropes of Indonesian political discourse. But Prabowo’s language is far more dramatic – even militant – than that used by most politicians. What is even more unusual is that he presents these critiques along with fiery condemnation of Indonesia’s entire political class, which he depicts as irredeemably corrupt and self-serving. As he told a crowd of workers at a rally last May Day: “The Indonesian elite has lied for too long… lied to the people, lied to the nation, lied to itself!” Later in the same speech, he added, “All are corrupted! All are bribed! All our leaders are willing to be bought and willing to be bribed!” Depicting himself as the anti-political politician he explained:

We cannot hope for too much from our leaders. They are clever talkers, so clever, so clever that they end up as clever liars! I went into politics because I was forced! I was forced, brothers and sisters! Politics… God help us! Of fifteen people I meet in politics, fourteen of them are total liars….

Or, as he put it more recently, on a visit to Aceh province: “How easy it is to control Indonesia. All you need to do is buy the political parties!” Of course there is a deep irony here: Prabowo is himself a product of the very highest level of Indonesia’s political elite, and a major oligarch in his own right. Yet there’s no denying the consistency, and the force, of his message.

This leads us to a second part of Prabowo’s appeal: the passion, even sometimes fury, with which he delivers his message. This also distinguishes him from most mainstream politicians – especially the current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is so careful and measured in his statements that he is often criticised for indecisiveness, but also Jokowi, whose personal style is unusually casual and low-key. At a recent campaign speech in the North Sumatran city of Medan, the subject of much scrutiny, Prabowo worked himself into a frenzy condemning various unnamed foreign stooges and people who steal the people’s money, commit fraud, engage in slander and so on. As Liam Gammon argues, “it says something about his frame of mind that the only time he gets so worked up as to lose his composure is when he’s talking about some devious clique of unnamed ‘others’ who conspire to exploit the national wealth and cheat the Indonesian people.” Indeed, Prabowo’s passion doesn’t look concocted on such occasions; he appears as if seized by deep personal emotions. It looks, in fact, as if he is thinking about his personal enemies.

This particular strength is potentially also a weak point. Prabowo is known to have a combustible, even unstable, personality. He is prone to outbursts of rage that sometimes involve physical violence, and reports of him throwing punches, mobile telephones and ashtrays when angered by his associates or underlings have circulated widely. Former factional rivals from within the military have described his personality flaws quite openly, and one, A.M. Hendropriyono (himself a man with a bad human rights record), has denounced him as a “psychopath.” Prabowo’s emotion-laden public speeches could thus be a double-edged sword, and may turn off some voters, especially women. Even so, there’s no doubt that many Indonesians – especially poorer ones – enjoy the unusual spectacle of a prominent figure getting so exercised, apparently on their behalf, in condemning the very politicians and elites they themselves abhor.

The third element of Prabowo’s appeal is the promised antidote to all these ills: leadership that is “firm” or “strong.” Indeed, we might think of the promise of strong leadership as not merely the central, but as virtually the only significant plank of Prabowo’s political program and his strategy for government. In a recent analysis, University of British Columbia historian John Roosa has compellingly argued that “in Prabowo’s mind, everything about a country – the quality of its economic system, culture, and standing – depends on the ‘leadership factor.’ The solution for all of Indonesia’s ills is a ‘strong national leadership.’” Accordingly, Prabowo’s speeches are self-referential and self-regarding to an extent that is unusual in Indonesian politics, and he often teasingly asks his audience whether he is being “too tough” or “too hard” in his denunciations.

In many casual conversations I have had with ordinary Indonesians over recent months, almost all those who say they will support Prabowo repeat the same refrain: Indonesia needs a leader who is tough, who will stamp down on corruption, who will stand up to foreign countries, who will prevent the repeat of “losses” such as East Timor, and so on. Public opinion polling also shows that voters who value firm leadership as a factor in making their choice overwhelming favour Prabowo. The irony, of course, is that for all his talk of leadership, Prabowo has actually not led anything in the last sixteen years, except for a political party that was concocted simply to provide him with a platform. When he did last hold a senior leadership position in a state body, he was fired from it.

A threat to democracy?

Prabowo is directing his campaign for the presidency through democratic channels. Recently, he has taken pains to state that he accepts Indonesia’s democratic system, and that he intends to preserve it. If he takes power, he will do so with the support of a coalition of political parties that have an interest in preserving democratic participation. He will also be operating in a system that includes robust checks and balances, as well as a strong media and civil society. Why, then, should we be concerned about the implications of a Prabowo presidency for Indonesian democracy?

The obvious reason is Prabowo’s authoritarian past and his personal record of responsibility for human rights violations. Much of the criticism from Indonesian civil society groups has focused on this aspect, and Prabowo became angry in last week’s televised debate when Jokowi’s running mate, Jusuf Kalla, tried to goad him on the issue.

Another source of concern is the hints at explicitly anti-democratic elements in Prabowo’s program. He has repeatedly stated, for instance, that he wants to return Indonesia to the “original” 1945 Constitution, as it was signed in 18 August 1945. In other words, he wants to return to a version of the Constitution that places concentrated power in the hands of the president and removes virtually all the key democratic procedures and controls found in contemporary Indonesian democracy, most of which have been introduced by a series of constitutional amendments since 1998.

Prabowo frequently drops hints, too, that democracy itself, or at least the version that is practised in Indonesia, is a chief source of corruption and various other ills. In last week’s televised debate he talked about “destructive” democracy and stated he wanted to create a “constructive” democracy instead. He told one gathering of retired military officers last month that democracy “exhausts us.”

The real danger, however, lies in the combination of Prabowo’s emphasis on the leadership principle and what we know about his personality. It’s clear that he views himself as embodying the solution to Indonesia’s many problems and believes that imposing his will is the key to achieving national renaissance. At the same time, his public statements invoke unnamed enemies, and contain implied threats against them or others. (Confronted by journalists, for example, he often doesn’t answer their questions but instead asks what outlet they represent, as if he is compiling a private list of those who treat him disrespectfully.) Add to this already combustible mixture his propensity for flying into violent rages when he does not get his way, and we have every reason to predict that Prabowo could be a president who would be unusually impatient with democratic procedures, and punitive towards political foes.

The first year or two of a Prabowo presidency might go smoothly enough. But after a while, once he started to run into the normal frustrations and compromises that come with democratic life – when he hits a roadblock erected by the parliament, the Constitutional Court, the media, or some other checking institution – it’s all too easy to imagine a President Prabowo invoking emergency powers or using some other extraordinary method to sweep such obstacles aside. Already there have been reports of active military officers campaigning for him, and it would be relatively simple for him as president to reactivate the army’s “territorial structure” and bring the security forces back into politics.

Of course, a Prabowo government would not be a carbon copy of Suharto’s New Order; Indonesia has changed a great deal since those days and there would be much resistance to any authoritarian reversal. But one important global trend over the last couple of decades has been the emergence of what are sometimes known as electoral authoritarian regimes: systems where elections persist but civil liberties and democratic participation are manipulated to allow the ruling group to entrench itself. Think of a place like Putin’s Russia, and we might have a picture of what Prabowo’s Indonesia will eventually look like.

How did this happen?

Of course, it’s not unusual for there to be nostalgia for the authoritarian past, or even a full-fledged authoritarian reversal, a decade or so after a country makes a transition to democracy. Political scientists have for years been speculating that Indonesia was ripe for the emergence of a populist challenger to the existing system. Even so, many analysts of contemporary Indonesian politics – me included – have in recent times adopted a positive take on Indonesia’s democratic achievements. Many things seemed to be going right: the media is robust, civil society is strong, and attempts to wind back democratic space have almost always been defeated by public resistance. Indonesian democracy seemed to be consolidating.

At the same time, deep problems have long been visible and have been the topic of extensive scholarly analysis. Now, some of these problems may be coming home to roost. Even if he doesn’t win in July, the fact that Prabowo is within arm’s reach of the presidency should warn us that Indonesian democracy is more fragile than many of us were prepared to concede. Shortcomings in three areas seem especially important for explaining Prabowo’s rise.

First is “transitional justice” – the task of investigating and punishing officials responsible for past human rights abuses. Indonesia’s failure on this score has been all but total. After Suharto fell, there were numerous investigations and even some trials, but in the end no senior military officer or other official was found guilty and punished for any of the well-documented human rights abuses that occurred under the New Order. Indeed, one might say that the price the army extracted for getting out of politics was an informal guarantee that none of its leaders would be punished for past misdeeds. The fact that someone like Prabowo, who a decade and a half ago was so discredited that he had to leave the country, is now able to launch a strong presidential bid is testimony to the consequences of this failing.

Some of those who are now Prabowo’s opponents have themselves to blame for this situation: in 2009 Megawati Sukarnoputri chose Prabowo as her vice-presidential candidate, making it clear that for her and her party, a poor human rights record was politically inconsequential. This year, Prabowo’s supporters ask, with some justification, if Jokowi’s party didn’t worry about Prabowo’s human rights record back then, why should it be making an issue of it now?

Second is the breadth and the depth of political corruption. For years now, on almost any day you can open the pages of any major Indonesian newspaper and be assaulted by stories of corruption in haj funds, beef import scandals, land scams, oil smuggling, medical equipment scams, textbook scams, mark-ups in the building of hospitals or sports stadiums – you name it. Those involved include everyone from the highest ministers in the land down to the lowliest town councillors and civil servants. To be sure, much of the media exposure is itself a sign of progress in the fight against graft. Even so, Indonesians would be forgiven for believing that democracy has produced a political system in which virtually everything and everyone is indeed for sale, as Prabowo has repeatedly been saying.

The April legislative elections, which were accompanied by a veritable orgy of vote-buying and electoral manipulation, themselves form an important part of the backdrop to Prabowo’s rise in the polls. No wonder so many Indonesians – especially poor ones – take delight in Prabowo’s denunciations of the political elite and his promises to eradicate corruption through strong leadership, despite his own entanglement in New Order business and patronage networks.

Third, and closely related, is the transactional style of politics that has become central to Indonesia’s democracy. More so than in many countries, official politics in Indonesia has been characterised by what American political scientist Dan Slater calls “promiscuous power sharing”: the propensity of parties with widely differing ideological outlooks or social bases to put aside their differences for the sake of shared access to the patronage resources offered by government. In Indonesian politics, it often seems as if no political alliance is principled or based on policy affinity; instead, everything is up for negotiation and ripe for a deal. Most of the cabinets formed by post-Suharto presidents have thus been broad “rainbow coalitions” in which virtually every major party is represented. This system has itself helped to generate the public disillusionment on which the Prabowo challenge feeds, but it has also helped Prabowo build his political coalition. As well as his own Gerindra, four other major parties have fallen in behind his presidential bid: Golkar, PAN, PKS and PPP (the final three are all Islamic-based). There is an authoritarian strain in each of these parties, but one would think that at least some of their leaders would be reluctant to support a leader who threatens a revival of New Order–style politics, partly because some of their leaders (especially those of PAN and PKS) were themselves directly involved in the movement to topple Suharto.

More to the point, Prabowo might ultimately threaten the democratic system that has benefited these parties so much. He has successfully wooed them, of course, by offering ministries and other positions of power. (Bakrie for instance, boasted that Prabowo had offered him the previously unheard-of post of “chief minister.”) In short, Prabowo has built his coalition by engaging in the very horse-trading and deal-making that he condemns. In contrast, Jokowi refused to cut such deals with potential coalition partners, losing out on support from PAN and Golkar.

This is just one of the deep ironies – some would say, hypocrisies – of the Prabowo challenge. Prabowo has managed to mobilise a large coalition that includes many political forces that have benefited greatly from democratic reform and from the climate of deal-making and corruption that he himself so vigorously denounces. For example, a close look at Gerindra party candidates and campaigners in the regions quickly reveals that most of them are not at all hard-edged populists or ideologues committed to Prabowo’s professed vision of a strong and clean Indonesia. For most, Gerindra is just the latest stopping point in long political careers that have led them through other parties, and they are just as well-versed in the techniques of “money politics” as other politicians. (In one Central Java electoral constituency where I conducted research earlier this year it was the local Gerindra candidates who engaged most massively in vote-buying.) If Prabowo is a modern version of the Fuehrer or Il Duce – as some of the memes circulating on social media among Indonesian liberals only half-jokingly assert – he is one who is coming to power without the strongly ideological political party that carried along those earlier demagogues.

This is a major contradiction at the heart of the Prabowo challenge. His campaign is stridently populist, anti-system and anti-elite in its oratorical style. But it is a campaign that has emerged from the very heart of that system and its elite. That contradiction is currently his Achilles’ heel. When he condemns the “political elite” at election rallies, lined up behind him on the stage are party leaders who themselves personify that elite – including some of its most unpopular representatives, such as Golkar’s Aburizal Bakrie. When Prabowo condemns corruption, politically informed Indonesians know that many of the parties and party leaders who now back him are themselves deeply implicated in some of Indonesia’s most notorious corruption cases. In last week’s TV debate, Prabowo said the Indonesian economy had been “wrongly managed”: standing next to him as his running mate was Hatta Rajasa, President Yudhoyono’s coordinating minister for economic affairs. Jokowi’s supporters have been quick to seize on such contradictions, distributing through social media witty postings and images satirising Prabowo and his new alliances.

It is thus far from clear that Prabowo will win. For every voter who finds Prabowo’s angry rhetoric and his promise of strength appealing, there is still at least one more who prefers Jokowi’s low-key affability. Even so, the race is open, and it is momentous. Phrases like “turning point” get overused in discussions of politics. In Indonesia in 2014, the term is apt. Whatever choice Indonesian voters make, it will be highly consequential. A Jokowi victory will likely allow for continued slow consolidation of Indonesia’s developing democratic system, and it might in fact lead to significant improvement in the quality of the democratic institutions. A victory by Prabowo carries major risks of serious authoritarian regression. The outside world should be worried by this prospect, but the biggest losers will be Indonesia’s own people. •

In two places in the above article I suggest that Prabowo’s appeal is likely to be strongest among the poor. Since writing the piece, polling has become available that suggests that it is fact more urban, educated and wealthier Indonesians – in other words, the middle classes – who have shifted earliest and most strongly toward Prabowo. This fact points us toward a reopening of the scholarly debate that occurred in the late New Order regarding the conservative and authoritarian tendencies in Indonesia’s middle classes. — Ed Aspinall, 25 June 2014