By Duncan Graham
Kiwis have a marvellously grotesque way of describing the acceptance of unpalatable policy changes: Swallowing dead rats.
There'll be much consumption of deceased vermin in Washington and
Canberra should former Indonesian general Prabowo Subianto get elected
president of Indonesia in the 9 July poll; the man is on a US visa
blacklist for alleged human rights abuses, and Australia is believed to
have the same prohibition.
If Prabowo is Indonesians' democratic choice – as seems increasingly
possible - there's no way the head of a nation of 240 million and the
world's most populous Islamic country is going to be escorted into a
sealed sideroom should he front at a Sydney airport immigration counter.
The words used to justify this fricassee a la rodent will be
collectors' items – allegations unproven, changing times, practical
considerations – but the protests once President Prabowo is out of the
airport carpark are likely to seriously damage Australian-Indonesian
Past president, the late Gus Dur, and present incumbent Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) were enthusiastically accepted, with the latter
addressing the federal Parliament in 2010. Soeharto was never welcome,
making only one visit to Townsville in 1975.
The only way Prabowo would be universally applauded would be through
engineering the peaceful cessation of hostilities in West Papua and
robust prosecution of the military involved in alleged human rights
As the former Kopassus (special forces) commander's record in problem
solving so far has been force first, a speedy and fair resolution of
the strife seems unlikely. He has already been quoted wanting a return
to an era where the police are feared by the citizenry; his party
colleagues have been seducing Islamic organizations, including the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders' Front).
This is the para-military pseudo-religious group whose thugs
specialise in threatening those they consider anti-Islam. During the
fasting month of Ramadhan (starting this year on 28 June) they like to
trash bars and aren't fond of Christians or female pop stars who don't
wear headscarves. They usually act with impunity. God knows what they'll
want in return for their support.
Imagine the new Indonesian president's motorcade in Australia
negotiating gauntlets of protests, his speeches heckled, demonstrators
in pursuit, flags burned, Indonesian sensitivities inflamed.
With Prabowo as President it's unlikely Prime Minister Tony Abbott
would be praising the "statesman" and "good friend" (the words he's used
for SBY). Nor would Foreign Minister Julie Bishop be predicting
relationships will "strengthen, broaden and deepen".
The US and Australia will have to chant the mantra that they'll work
with whoever is democratically chosen. But if that man is Prabowo
relations between the two nations could hurtle back to the darkest days
of the despot Soeharto, the candidate's former father-in-law. (Prabowo
is now divorced).
Although the position of Labor and Liberal is to respect Indonesia's
sovereignty, minor parties like the Greens don't hold back when
criticising Indonesian administration of West Papua.
They are backed by churches, non-government organizations and an
active separatist lobby. These groups may be small, but they are shrill
and usually get traction in the media.
Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is still leading the polls. As president he'd
have no blood on his hands and would likely find friends everywhere in
Australia. He's already been to West Papua and promised access by
foreign media, though that pledge could be thwarted by the military.
However unless he lifts his game significantly in the next few weeks
chances are he'll be overtaken.
This hasn't been the campaign for Prabowo to win but for Jokowi to lose.
Two months ago the then Jakarta Governor was the media darling far in
front of any rival, his popularity founded on his humble
man-of-the-people image, something the arrogant Prabowo has always
Metro, the TV station backing Jokowi, regularly shows him cycling to
the office and inspecting roadworks alongside clips of Prabowo in
helicopters and limos.
It's a programming policy that's backfiring; television audiences
don't see Barack Obama crawling out of manholes after sewer inspections.
The US President waves from the doorways of Air Force One as world
leaders gather below to pay homage. Prabowo's not there yet, but
choppering into rallies helps craft the image.
For the older generation of Indonesians, presidents carried an aura
of ruthless authority, a presence that tolerates no questioning. If they
did step into a selected crowd it was to show the peasants how to do
things properly, like plant rice.
Prabowo's contrived appearances in military style garb, riding a
Palomino, standing tall in jeeps, hectoring crowds, reinforce that
return to the past. Stories of his bullying and temper are widespread.
The man is an iron-clad product of the 32-year Soeharto era of
shameless patronage, gross corruption and total authoritarianism. Like
all soldiers he's been trained to give and take orders, to see enemies
and eliminate them. He's a hawk in the Dick Cheney eyrie.
Prabowo wears the freshly tailored camouflage of democracy only to
win office. He's a life member of the unreconstructed elite that
controls the nation through an incestuous network of patronage. Orde Baru
(Soeharto's New Order administration born in 1965) never really died
when the old man stepped down in 1998, it just hibernated awhile.
For a thorough analysis of Prabowo's past read Gerry van Klinken's piecein Inside Indonesia http://www.insideindonesia.org/current-edition/prabowo-and-human-rights
By contrast Jokowi is just a self-made businessman from a provincial
town who has done well in local government. He seems to genuinely want
reform, though finds his Mental Revolution philosophy hard to articulate. His mates don't carry guns or shout orders, his relatives aren't married to generals.
In talk shows he listens intently and appears to respect questioners.
His answers tend to be thoughtful, though faltering; they're not glib
or dismissive. An electorate desperate for change is projecting too many
qualities on the man. They laugh too easily at his limp jokes, clap too
wildly at his statements.
If Jokowi really does want the top job he's so far not displayed the
raw, snarling hunger shown by his opponent desperate to capture the
Jokowi is also handicapped by the presence of former president
Megawati who often accompanies him on the campaign trail (along with her
ambitious daughter Puan Maharani), like a mother ensuring son's jocks
are clean. She's also there to remind the electorate that she's the
kingmaker, rightful daughter of the nation's founder Soekarno who has
selected Jokowi to do her bidding. Surveys indicate this rankles with
There's no Mummy figure in Prabowo's battalions blitzing their way
through the electorate suggesting a return to the golden era of cheap
rice (because it was subsidized) and less crime (because suspected
criminals were shot on the street, their fly-blown corpses a warning to
the lawless), and to make the nation great.
What else matters to the average voter? Human rights abuses – who
cares? International relations – nothing to do with us. Foreign
investors – kick them all out, we'll do everything ourselves. Religious
intolerance? If they don't like it let them leave. Only a public outcry
has forced Prabowo to modify a policy clause that 'the State must
regulate religious freedom'.
Overblown rhetoric and wild statements soon collide with reality once
candidates turn winners. That's true worldwide. Pledges are shredded
and the language twisted and warped to explain why words aren't being
honoured. John Howard's 'not a core promise' is a classic in the genre.
Watching the passionate debates night after night on Indonesian TV
arouses admiration: For all the screamingly obvious faults this is a
nation with the most free and robust media in Southeast Asia.
Indonesians are embracing democracy, and whatever we think, they're
doing it their way. We're the ones who'll have to adjust to the new
people moving in next door.
Duncan's article originally appeared in 10 June in Onlineopinion.com.