“Indonesian Putin” vs. “Indonesian Obama
Victor SUMSKY | 02.07.2014 | WORLD / Asia Pacific

“Indonesian Putin” vs. “Indonesian Obama"

Indonesia is gearing up for the presidential election on July 9, 2014. Although the largest Southeast Asian nation has been a presidential republic since 1945 (with only a brief interval in the 1950s), this is just the third time that its top leader is to be elected by popular vote. Incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (or SBY for short) who won the races in 2004 and 2009 is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office. After ten years in power he will have to leave the presidential palace.

Just a few months ago the result of the vote seemed to be pre-destined. According to public opinion polls, a mass of Indonesians pinned their hopes on the 53-year old Jakarta Governor named Joko Widodo.

How could a former furniture trader become a political messiah? It all started about a decade ago in Solo, a city in Central Java. Serving as its Mayor, Joko Widodo (alias Jokowi) attracted nationwide sympathies by his common sense and attempts to practice good government. In September 2012 he won a sensational victory in the capital city. Since then Jokowi-related content has dominated newspaper reports, social media and TV programs. New brochures about him come out in numbers that would be enough for a special chain of book stores.

But with the start of the presidential campaign on June 5 the polls began to fluctuate, and the election outcome no longer looks quite as certain as before. Prabowo Subianto proves to be a force to reckon with. Once President Suharto's son-in-law and the commander of special forces (KOPASSUS), he now leads the Greater Indonesia Movement, or Gerindra, that is basically a tool for his presidential ambitions. If only a month before the start of the campaign Jokowi’s rating was twice as high as that of Prabowo, then by the end of June the gap between the candidates was rapidly closing.

Why these particular personalities are grabbing the limelight? What expectations are they generating, and what kind of future awaits Indonesia if one or the other wins?

None of the two presidential hopefuls poses as a successor to the outgoing head of state, even though his record includes a number of important achievements. Having lived through a devastating crisis of 1997-1998 and a few chaotic years after that, the country stepped in 2004-2013 on the path of a steady 5-6% GDP growth. While at times Indonesia even exceeded this rate, it never slipped under SBY into anything like Suharto’s dictatorial style. During Yudhoyono’s presidency Indonesia has restored its leading position in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), won the reputation of the most democratic Muslim country and a place in G20. Some call it now “the third Asian giant” after China and India. The status is not official, of course, but still a matter of great pride. The tangible results of the first tenure allowed Yudhoyono to score a sweeping victory in the first round of the 2009 election – only to become, ironically, the country’s first-ever lame-duck leader.

With no third term option, some members of the Yudhoyono team decided to protect their positions of influence by grooming a First Family member as a winner in the 2014 contest. Life made a mockery of their plans. The new cabinet barely started to function when the infamous bail-out of Bank Century rocked the country. This huge scandal was followed by a string of similar episodes ruining reputations of some ministerial caliber players. The poll numbers of Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party dropped drastically, leaving it at the end of the day without a viable presidential candidate. Indonesians now tended to think that in spite of all the early 21st century changes corruption remained endemic and incurable. The oligarchy nurtured by Suharto’s rule was still in charge, and it was them, not the people, who really enjoyed the benefits of economic growth. The technocrats in the cabinet were lambasted for neo-liberal dogmatism and attempts to bring in foreign investments even to the detriment of national business. The participation of the very same characters in electoral contests was becoming a real irritant.

And then Jokowi emerged on the national political stage. Compared to the incumbent Governor who opposed him in the Jakarta election of September 2012, Jokowi had no administrative muscle to rely on and looked like a typical underdog – until the electorate suddenly discovered that this very fact, combined with an ability to speak clearly and behave without false pretentions was making him irresistible. That election was a real fairy tale: a hard working man of humble origins turned overnight into an epic hero. And what was still more remarkable, the fairy tale did not stop when all the votes were counted. As it appeared, Jokowi had no other purpose but to serve the masses. Without prior notice and no entourage to speak of he would come to slum-like areas to talk to the local folks about ways and means of improving their living.

It would be too naïve, though, to imagine him getting his new position all by himself. Among Jokowi’s backers was the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and herself a former Head of State. More than just a little help was provided by another friend – Prabovo Subianto and his Gerindra party. In fact, the Megawati-Prabovo duo was formed on the eve of the 2009 election when the former made a comeback attempt with the latter becoming her vice presidential mate. Those two also signed an agreement according to which Megawati was to support Prabowo during the 2014 presidential race.

The victory of Jokowi in Jakarta was important for his patrons as a prelude to a contest that would feature them as the biggest players.

No doubt Prabowo had reasons to expect Megawati’s blessings. With the fall of Suharto in 1998, the brilliant career of the 47 year-old general (who according to some rumors was about to be appointed Indonesia’s new military chief) seemed to be over. Prabowo was accused of misusing power in East Timor and practicing repression against protesting students. Then came a discharge without honors; the Suharto clan gave him a cold shoulder. He had to divorce his wife and leave the country for a while. Who could foresee that having gone through these trials he would return to achieve success in each and every endeavor he started, be it business or politics? In a sense, his painful fall and subsequent rise had a parallel in the vicissitudes of the recent Indonesian history. Having founded Nusantara Group, a conglomerate of industrial and agricultural companies with many millions in profits, Prabowo did not stop at that. He was elected President of the Indonesian Farmers' Association and the Indonesian Traditional Market Traders Association, and then in 2008 formed a political party of his own. Moving against the tide and always winning, he was proving how seasoned and strong he was. That is how a growing number of Indonesians felt about him during the 2009 campaign. No sooner had it ended as experts started to claim that of all the 2014 potential aspirants he would have the best chances. This was a dominant opinion before Jokowi’s ratings hiked. And then they started to say that Indonesia had found its own Obama – the reformer who would recreate the nation.

In the middle of 2013 some experts still speculated that Jokowi and Prabowo could join forces to form an unbeatable team. But if so, then who would be number one and number two? The other question was about Megawati’s attitude: would she want to throw behind those two the support of the PDI-P? In the present legal system, only parties or coalitions controlling 20% of seats in the Indonesian parliament (known as DPR) or winning 25% of the popular vote in the parliamentary elections could nominate a presidential candidate.

Prabowo faced a problem. Gerindra, like the majority of the 12 national parties preparing for the April 9, 2014 parliamentary race, could not count on the required 20% of seats. It had no choice but to negotiate with other parties. Jokowi’s task was more complicated and somewhat easier at the same time. Unlike Prabowo he had no party of his own. But he was popular enough to get a nomination from any party that would overcome the 20% barrier. If so, then a cumbersome and tedious process of seeking coalition partners could be avoided altogether.

The PDI-P was expected to lead. No wonder both Jokowi and Prabowo pinned their hopes on cooperation with Megawati. In the case of Prabowo it seemed well substantiated: after all, Megawati firmly promised to support his presidential campaign in 2014. As it happened she took her words lightly. In her calculus, the alliance with Jokowi would bring the PDI-P more votes to enhance her own political position. Therefore, she decided to nominate the capital’s Governor for President not after the parliamentary elections but before it.

The party functionaries expected that with 37% of votes the PDI-P would outdo all competitors. They were shocked to know that though their party did lead the race, it failed to get over the 20% threshold. Jokowi’s personal charm was not enough to save the show. In the meantime, the Prabowo party doubled its number of seats. However, the score was still not enough to let it proceed without allies.

The second half of April and the first half of May were full of talks and consultations to shape the electoral alliances. Jusuf Kalla agreed to join Jokowi and run for Vice President, the position he had already held between 2004 and 2009. Three relatively small political parties also joined the Jokowi-Kalla camp – the Democratic Renewal Party (Partai Demokrasi Pembaruan, or PDP), the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) and the People's Conscience Party (Hanura). This coalition has a total exceeding 37% of parliamentary seats.

Prabowo's coalition includes his own Gerindra; Golkar, formerly the ruling party under Suharto; and three Islamic parties – the National Mandate Party (PAN), the United Development Party (PPP), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Prabowo chose Hatta Rajasa, the leader of PAN and the former Coordinating Minister for the Economy, as his vice presidential candidate. Another influential fellow traveler is Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar chairman and Indonesia’s richest tycoon. The Prabowo-led coalition has over 52% of seats in the parliament.

Characteristically, none of the two coalitions has brought into its fold the party of the incumbent President – the Democrats, who still control as much as 11% of all the parliamentary seats.

Both Jokowi and Prabowo are obviously trying to keep a distance from the present government. But they do it in different ways. Being a top-level official, Jokowi is presenting himself to the electorate as more of a human rights and civil society activist. By contrast, Prabowo who holds no position in the government sounds like someone for whom the state as such retains unquestionable value.

If Jokowi is worried that after the fall of the dictatorship the grassroots creative potential has not been developed for the bigger benefit of the nation, then Prabowo slams the irresponsibility of the bureaucracy as an impediment to modernization. The popularity levels of both politicians are effectively proving that such attitudes are shared by big sections of the electorate.

While both presidential hopefuls are freely using patriotic and populist rhetoric, the Jakarta Governor sounds a bit softer than the former paratrooper. Prabowo stands out for his “stentorian” voice and offensive manner of speech – to the point that no matter what he talks about, he seems to be talking about the need to protect law and order and to be more disciplined. Trying to guess what it means, some observers are only too keen to find a refuge in stereotypes. In private conversations and by media outlets, Prabowo Subianto is sometimes compared to Vladimir Putin. Western analysts and investors are concerned about Indonesia sliding back into authoritarianism if Prabowo prevails. For them, that’s a way to display their preferences.

In terms of socio-economic programs, the priorities are more or less the same. Jokowi and Prabowo promise to support small and medium business through extended credits, speak about building more houses for the needy, enhancing the productivity of agriculture, improving infrastructure and protecting national business against foreign competitors, especially in the mining sector.

There is still some time to introduce new ideas, perhaps even to alter to a degree the correlation of forces. While the competition between “Indonesian Putin” and “Indonesian Obama” may at times look dramatic, the current situation is hardly conducive to anything like fundamental change. Jokowi insists that he has built a “coalition of the people” – unlike Prabowo who is supported by a “coalition of the elite”. This view is somewhat simplistic. At the core of both alliances are those belonging to the elite, and both alliances are products of numerous and overlapping compromises. Having taken office, any of the two contenders will have to respond to conflicting claims from the fellow travelers. Above all, the winner will have to address the nation’s problems that defy quick and easy solutions.

Dr. Victor Sumsky, director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University

Tags: Indonesia