It’s almost Macbeth: The ghosts of three past presidents haunting a campaign to elect a new top man. Soekarno, Soeharto and Gus Dur (left) smile spookily on banners above the faces of candidates in the Indonesian election, hinting of a return to glories past should electors pick those claiming to have been endorsed by the dead.
Yet around a third of the 186 million strong electorate never lived as adults under the rule of these men. About 22 million are ballot box virgins.
Most electioneering consists of rent-a-crowd rallies, and convoys of motorbike hoons gunning their engines and blocking streets. If you haven’t collected a few goodie bags with a T-shirt, blob of rice and a chilli, then you haven’t been near a town square or sports stadium.
Some TV programmes are doing fine work with talk shows and robust interviewing. The problem is that their stations belong to candidates whose code of ethics does not include separating news from partisan propaganda.
Another phantom also lurks, though more poltergeist than wraith, detected only though shifting images: Camouflage gear, flag ceremonies, berets and heavy boots, jeeps and thrusting fists, ‘strength’ and ‘power’ snarled into microphones.
The military (TNI) has always had a role in Indonesian politics. Its golden years started in 1965 with the ousting of first president Soekarno and the installation of General Soeharto who controlled the world’s biggest Islamic nation with an iron grip for 32 years.
Every five years the kleptocrat ran the marvellously Orwellian ‘Festival of Democracy’ with results as predictable as elections for Kim Jong-un. Some approved opposition was allowed, but public servants and their families had no choice. Ballot boxes were in government offices.
Soeharto was swept away in 1998 by a wave of demos for democracy and a drowning economy. Rash commentators proclaimed the death of Orde Baru (New Order), the general’s authoritarian administration.
Wrong. The old gang whipped off their fatigues, dashed to 24-hour turnaround tailors for Western suits, Islamic sarongs and nationalistic peci (the rimless black cap), then claimed to have been closet democrats all along.
Prabowo Subianto, 62, leader of the Gerindra Party plans to nationalise foreign firms if he wins power. This has investors trembling but crowds delighted. Let’s bore it up the West – who cares about the fallout?
Prabowo was once Soeharto’s son in law and chief of the army’s special forces, Kopassus. He’s on a US visa black list for alleged abuses of human rights during the chaos surrounding the fall of Soeharto.
Wiranto, 67, commander of the Indonesian military at the time, also has a murky past. He’s seeking high office as head of the Gerindra Party, his second tilt at being boss. The TV ads of both men feature kindly souls helping the wee folk, but special effects can’t hide their raw rule-by-fear agendas.
Current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, constitutionally barred from seeking a third five-year term, was also a general. It’s a fact conveniently ignored by Western Nelsons, praising his handling of the economy while failing to see his failures to stem religious conflict.
Golkar, the political vehicle of Soeharto, has put up business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, 68, as its presidential candidate. The Bakrie companies made their wealth during the Soeharto era.
The parties are colour coded which made sense when the electorate was politically illiterate. That’s no longer true; the masses are now better educated and the press the most free in Asia. The old days when people talked about voting merah (red, the PDI-P color) or kuning (yellow) for Golkar seem to have gone.
Parliamentary elections will be on 9 April, the direct election of the president on 9 July. Voting is not compulsory
As other journalists have noted, there are multiple reasons not to vote for Joko Widodo, 52, better known as Jokowi, and currently the man most likely.
The governor of Jakarta was handpicked by PDI-P chairwoman, Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia’s fifth president (2001-4) and the daughter of first president Soekarno. She wanted to try her hand again to keep the dynasty alive, but was persuaded otherwise by pragmatists who know the Bob Dylan lyrics: The times, they are a’changin.
Jokowi (below) has no experience outside local government politics and no record in high finance, though he became a millionaire through exporting furniture. He’s an unknown in international affairs, but in this campaign, so what?
He’s a humble, quietly spoken Javanese, a mainstream Muslim who seeks to avoid conflict, and a graduate in forestry. So far he hasn’t featured in any corruption scandals, a rare achievement in a nation where too many believe that graft is good.
Like the other candidates he has no clear policies and will pull votes on the strength of his good guy personality and record as a can-do governor. However this is more myth than fact as the man has only held office for 18 months.
The one standout reason to vote for him is that he’s not one of them. He has no military or Soeharto crony stains. He seems genuinely at ease with the poor, who are many, without being paternalistic.
His older mega-rich opponents shout and strut – Prabowo rode a horse around a stadium rally in a Putin-like stunt – and shamelessly display their wealth and born-to-rule arrogance.
These are early days. There’s been violence in Aceh and crude attempts in Java to disrupt a PDI-P rally. Indonesians now have a fearless sense of political cynicism. Malicious manipulation worked in the past. Not now.
Dark talk hints of ensuring Jokowi is emasculated by imposing a general as his running mate, or an older figure who’d dominate because Javanese respect age. Megawati is likely to remain influential.
If Jokowi gets up and stays his own man it will truly be a break with the past. Whether he can energise the slothful bureaucracy, quell sectarian strife, repair the clanking infrastructure and lift the economy are other questions.