The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, October 10, 2014


Undermining an upstart, destroying Democracy 

The great hope - now the reality


Back in June, just as a televised debate between contenders for the Indonesian presidency was about to start, the cameras caught a telling moment.

The ultimately successful team of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his offsider Jusuf Kalla was sitting in the wings when Hatta Rajasa, Kalla’s rival for the vice presidency, walked past.

Kalla followed.  The two men, both former members of a Cabinet led by outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) could be seen conferring in the shadows. Jokowi, a man alone, peered around anxiously, clearly wondering what was happening.

Even though he’ll be installed as the nation’s seventh president on 20 October he’s still in the dark as the old guard closes ranks.  These pre-democracy leftovers seem determined to ensure that commoner upstarts like Jokowi, a former small-town mayor and furniture manufacturer, will never again be able to break into their exclusive club.

Prabowo Subianto, the losing contender for the top job by eight million votes and a former general with a dubious human rights record, has opened a guerrilla campaign backed by right-wing Muslims to unseat the people’s choice.

If this intensifies expect Hong Kong style street protests as the young voters who put Jokowi into the Presidential palace rise against the dinosaurs’ move to drive him out.

In the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR (People's Representative Council) Prabowo has mustered a ‘Red and White Coalition’ (the colours of the Indonesian flag) that controls 353 seats in the 560 member House. 

Arguing the change saves money this power block has already eliminated direct voting for regional politicians and returned to the appointment procedure used by Indonesia’s second president Soeharto to reward his mates.

Now it’s being reported that Prabowo plans to use his muscle in the DPR to knock out direct elections for the presidency.  This possibility was first forecast by ANU academics Ed Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner under the memorable heading: Vote for me, but just the once.

Their pre-poll prediction was criticised for its negativity by Prabowo supporters claiming their man was a real democrat who’d changed his ways; but that was clearly just a cloak for the campaign, thrown off once the results showed he’d lost.

Soeharto was another ruthless iron-fisted general who held power for 32 years until unseated in 1998 by democracy activists.  Prabowo married his daughter and was part of the despot’s inner circle.

If the grace and favour system for public office had been in place a few years ago Jokowi would not have been elected mayor of Solo or governor of Jakarta, the positions he won through open election before standing for the presidency.

The New York Times reported the move as a ‘setback for the country’s democratic transition and a naked power grab by its wounded political elite’.

Before this latest turn of events it was believed the era of the commoner was about to dawn and the reign of the high-born, the top ranks in the military and the well-connected corrupt had been guillotined.

Jokowi’s success seemed to show that anyone in Indonesia could reach the top without sacrificing the nation’s fine values of altruism, community self-help, respect for others and maintaining harmony, and that ambition is not shameful.

The eldest of four children and the only boy, the President elect was born in 1961 and raised in a poor family that gathered timber. He laboured to get through school and enter the prestigious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta where he graduated with a science degree in forestry. 

After working for a government agency in Aceh he returned to Central Java and started his own furniture business. Later he became mayor of Surakarta (also known as Solo).  In 2012 he was elected Governor of Jakarta where he became popular for his blusukan (walkabout) administration, meeting ordinary folk and listening to their concerns.

This down-to-earth style, so different from his arrogant and protocol-driven predecessors, made him a media darling and propelled him to stand as a presidential candidate.

However this background, appealing as it seems, has given little protection against a determined cabal of well-funded elite politicians better known, as one Jakarta newspaper reported, for their ‘fractiousness, proclivity for colossal corruption, political dysfunction and unfettered absenteeism than actually getting anything done’.

If external hostility wasn’t enough, Jokowi also faces domestic difficulties.  Megawati Sukarnoputri, the petulant daughter of first president Sukarno who was overthrown by Soeharto in 1965, heads the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle).

Her comments and behaviour since the election have done nothing to erase a widely held view that Jokowi is her puppet.  She has refused to meet the outgoing President to discuss tactics to head off Prabowo’s democracy destabilisation, reportedly because she bears grudges that date back to 2004 when  defeated for the presidency by SBY.

With a dysfunctional party, a hostile parliament, a vengeful establishment that controls several media outlets, and huge economic problems across an archipelago of 240 million people, Jokowi is going to need extraordinary political skills just to survive, let alone introduce the reforms he promised during the campaign.

In this environment the new president’s Jakarta walkabouts will be of little value when he confronts the oligarchs that have always run Indonesia.  They never use the footpaths.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 5 Oct 2014.  For comments see:


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