By Duncan Graham
Indonesia’s electoral system differs from Australia’s. Presidential hopefuls didn’t seek Legislative Assembly (DPR) seats at the 9 April election - they’ll be facing the people in a direct vote on 9 July. However their parties’ performances are a useful weather vane. Duncan Graham writes from East Java.
There was something unsettling about presidential aspirant Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s performance on Metro TV last week.
The Jakarta Governor looked tired but good naturedly deflected questions about a vice presidential partner following the DPR elections. The unofficial ‘quick count’ results have given his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), prime position at just under 19 per cent, though way below predictions.
Also on the talk show were former vice president and business tycoon Jusuf Kalla, Minister for State Owned Enterprises and major newspaper chain owner Dahlan Iskan, and Jakarta deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), a political rival.
Earlier there’d been a one-sided embrace between Surya Paloh, the owner of Metro TV and head of the National Democratic Party (NasDem), and a squirming Jokowi; it looked like a white pointer nuzzling a seal.
Powerful men all and keen to ride pillion on Jokowi’s bike, but this was a sideshow. Absent were the two giants who want the top job. (The current incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, has served two five-year terms and is constitutionally barred from standing.)
Apart from Jokowi the major contestants are Aburizal Bakrie, corporate tsar and head of Golkar, which ran second with 14.4 per cent, and former general Prabowo Subianto, who heads Gerindra. This came third with 11.9 per cent.
Both men are zillionaires, relics of the 32-year Soeharto era of crony capitalism and authoritarian control, desperate to get into the Presidential palace. In the next three months Jokowi, who owned a small-town furniture factory, not a media conglomerate in the capital, will be going head-to-head with candidates who don’t have ‘lose’ in their lexicons. These men radiate power at Strontium 90 levels. Should either win the move would be horizontal, just stepping out of one grand office into another. The new uniform would fit their stout forms without tailoring. When slim Jokowi left Metro’s studio for another function, he walked alone through the audience; just an ordinary bloke, not an Alpha male who expects quaking respect as his right.
All fine and egalitarian. But absent was the gravitas, any hint he has the Right Stuff. Being the battlers’ mate with his meet-the-people blusukan walkabouts as Governor of the nation’s capital for the past 18 months has given Jokowi profile, but those days are surely over. Despite having ‘democracy’ in its title the PDI-P is the fiefdom of first president Soekarno’s daughter Megawati. Now Jokowi must break free from her matronage, to move on. That means up and away.
In 2006 Bakrie was faced with overwhelming expert evidence that his company’s East Java gas well had caused the world’s biggest mud volcano, displacing 40,000 citizens. Then other geologists arrived who blamed natural causes. And the courts agreed. When outraged victims marched to Jakarta demanding compensation their outspoken leader suddenly appeared on a Bakrie TV station, tearfully withdrawing his statements and apologising for insulting the big man’s family. In 2010 the Bakrie Group went into a coal deal with prominent London financier Nat Rothschild. The partnership soured, both sides lost but the Bakries appear to have bested the British financial establishment.
Prabowo, once Soeharto’s son-in-law has an impeccable born-to-rule pedigree; his grandfather played a key role in establishing the nation, and his father was a leading economist. As a Kopassus commander Prabowo fought in East Timor and later led a hostage rescue operation in Papua. If his vaulting ambition hadn’t over-leaped during the 1998 fall of Soeharto he’d probably be considered a national hero. After being discharged from the military for ‘misinterpreting orders’ regarding the alleged kidnapping and torture of activists he fled to exile in Jordan. He returned later and got into business – then politics. He was Megawati’s running partner in the 2009 election. When that bid failed he started Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) which he runs in the style of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Prabowo has been blacklisted by the US for alleged human rights abuses, but who cares? Not the Gerindra voters in the DPR election who reckon the nation of 240 million needs Captain Indonesia to keep control.
Though few articulate their concerns out loud, the concern is that Jokowi won’t last the distance, that his campaign could falter in a real or contrived crisis requiring a tough guy to ‘rescue’ democracy.
The 9 April election went brilliantly, though the Golput (no show) response was worryingly high at an estimated 34 per cent abstainers. The campaign was mainly benign, more often marked by humour than venom. But that wasn’t the grand event. Security has been boosted at Megawati’s insistence, but Jokowi still seems reluctant to abandon the accessibility that’s taken him so far.
First president Soekarno survived assassination attempts. He was also hugely popular with the people, but lost power when a failed coup d’état let the army take over. During the 1999 East Timor crisis the military used its standard blacks-ops tactic of arming ‘ninja’ militias to sow discord when third president Habibie had already agreed to a referendum.
Fourth president Gus Dur was ignored when he ordered Islamic militants to be stopped from sailing to the Moluccas where sectarian violence took the lives of 5,000. These three presidents were civilians. Second president Soeharto and current president SBY were generals. The Australian Defence Forces may not like its government’s asylum seeker turn-back policies, but no-one expects Tony Abbott’s orders to be disobeyed or his position slandered. But this is Indonesia where the army has always seen its role differently, the protector of the nation’s sacred Unitary State principle from internal threats. That trumps the people’s will every time.
What authority could Jokowi, who has literally and metaphorically never worn camouflage, exercise over an army that does things its way? Goodness, the man’s religious credentials are also in question: He’s reputed to be an abangan (nominal Muslim), and a pluralist. Even if no-one primes a bomb or engineers sectarian strife, Jokowi can be neutered by relentless attacks highlighting his deficiencies while promoting his opponents’ proven merits There’ll be no lack of money – or will.
Many Indonesians, including SBY, openly believe in black magic. Expect a dark campaign with battalions of phantoms.
Duncan Graham is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in both Surabaya, Indonesia and New Zealand. View his site at Indonesia Now.