New dawn - or democracy’s sunset?
On 20 October Joko Widodo (Jokowi), 53, a commoner from the wrong side of the river, will be installed as Indonesia’s seventh president.
One month ago most commentators were hailing the people’s choice as a bright dawning in the nation’s democratic development, and sunset for the sclerotic graft-ridden oligarchs that have long ruled our closest Asian neighbour.
Despite backing by battalions of Generation Net volunteers demanding political and economic reform, and winning by a margin of eight million votes, Jokowi faces a ruthless political guerrilla campaign engineered by his bitter rival Prabowo Subianto. He’s a former special forces general blacklisted by the US government for alleged human rights abuses.
Prabowo’s contempt for democracy became clear during the dirty campaign which included claims Jokowi was Chinese, communist – even a secret Christian with a conversion agenda, a serious slander in the world’s most populous Islamic nation.
For more than three months Prabowo refused to concede defeat in the 9 July election. His Gerindra party dashed to the Constitutional Court alleging “massive fraud.” The court’s nine judges unanimously threw out the claims.
He then mustered a coalition of six opposing parties that hold sway in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR (People's Representative Council).
The Red and White Coalition, named after the colours of Indonesia’s flag, includes right-wing Muslim parties. It’s also backed by the Islamic Defenders’ Front, a gang of street thugs specialising in mob violence.
In a 2 am vote taken on September 26 the MPs scrapped direct elections for regional politicians, arguing this would save money. At the time President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), constitutionally bound to stand down after two five-year terms, was in the US.
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’. Prabowo returned fire, saying this showed foreigners interfering to make Indonesia a servile state.
Now it’s being alleged that Prabowo plans to use his 353-seat muscle in the 560 member DPR to knock out direct elections for the presidency. It’s also claimed there are plans to eliminate the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK) the Anti-Corruption Commission that has been investigating high-profile politicians and businesspeople, scoring several hits.
If this happens expect Hong Kong style street protests as the young idealists who put Jokowi into the Presidential palace rise against the establishment’s move to drive him out.
Direct elections, the Constitutional Court and the KPK were introduced following the 1998 ousting of General Soeharto, Indonesia’s iron-fisted second president and Prabowo’s former father-in-law, by pro-democracy activists.
Popular voting propelled Jokowi into local government in his Central Java hometown of Solo, then into the position of governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling and polluted capital of ten million souls.
Jokowi’s success seemed to show that anyone in Indonesia could reach the top without connections in the military and Jakarta’s sleazy Soeharto-era mafia.
Raised in a rented riverside shack he helped his father gather timber to pay for his education at the prestigious Gadjah Mada University where he graduated with a science degree in forestry.
After working for a government agency in Aceh he returned to Solo and started his own furniture business. Later he became mayor. 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 dirt-under-fingernails style, so different from his haughty predecessors, made him a media sweetheart and presidential candidate.
This slum to head of state background, appealing as it seems, has given little protection against a determined cabal of TV tycoons and cashed-up 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’.
Indonesia ranks 114 on Transparency International corruption perception index. NZ tops the list as the world’s least corrupt.
If external hostility wasn’t enough, Jokowi also faces domestic difficulties. Megawati Soekarnoputri, the petulant daughter of first president Soekarno who was overthrown by Soeharto in a 1965 coup, heads the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) that endorsed Jokowi’s candidature.
Her behaviour since the election has reinforced a widely held view that Jokowi is her puppet relying on her matronage. She has already snubbed outgoing President SBY’s attempts to discuss Prabowo’s democracy destabilisation, reportedly because she detests the man who defeated her 2004 bid for the presidency.
With unstable backing, a hostile parliament, a vengeful old guard 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 fairer society he promised.