Monthly Archives: October 2012

INDONESIAN POLITICS: WHERE’S THE PARTY?

Originally published in the Huffington Post

It’s been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart party Gerindra,  defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots in the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has it’s roots in the Suharto’s New Order era. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin – a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.

For sure the incumbent “Foke”, who is perceived to have achieved precious little during his tenure, basically shot himself in the foot with highly publicized multiple political gaffes. The upset marks something of a sea change in the dynamic of Indonesian democracy. Evidently Indonesian voters are voting according to their assessment of political performance rather than simply following party lines. Political parties now have to be much more careful about their image and what they actually stand for, rather than just the simple dynastic power and money alliances of the past. But political parties per se are obviously not to be discounted yet.

A case in point: shortly after the fast count clearly indicated Jokowi-Ahok victory, retired General Prabowo, a major player in the Gerindra party, boasted that Jokowi and Ahok owed their victory to him. Though everyone knows that Prabowo brought Ahok, a disillusioned Golkar member passed over by his own party, into the race, his bragging rankled the PDI-P rank and file. PDI-P stalwarts are miffed because their iconic leader, Megawati, got so little mileage out of the gubernatorial elections. PDI-P grumbling has in turn has alarmed the Gerindra leadership who are painfully aware that they need PDI-P’s support to achieve the 20% of the seats in parliament required to field a presidential candidate.

Prabowo is controversial at best. He has the dubious honor of being the first person to be denied entry into the United States under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (There is a dark irony here, after all Prabowo trained in counter terrorism at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg). Though ostensibly cleared by a military court of his human rights abuses during the New Order (though he was discharged from the army – this ex-son-in-law of Suharto was commander of the Kopassus special forces) many still insist he was behind the political ‘disappearances’ and torture of opposition activists in the days leading up to Suharto’s downfall.

Prabowo has been back from self-exile in Jordan for several years now, and has been staging something of a comeback into politics. He has his crosshairs firmly sighted on the Presidency in 2014. Though by some he may be perceived as the man with the guts it takes to clean up the rot and corruption in Indonesian politics, the still warm memory of his cold blooded transgressions are only stirred up by his braggadocio. Forgiving might be a virtue, but forgetting is stupid. And Indonesians are really not that stupid.

The renewed arrogance of this moneyed son of the elite may well have cost him not only the support of PDI-P – so much so that they probably will prefer to announce two-time loser Megawati yet again as their candidate – but possibly his own party’s eligibility to field a candidate at all. Gerindra recently announced the cancellation of their national convention later this month – during which it was supposed to have announced Prabowo’s candidacy.

Meanwhile Gerindra has filed a judicial review of the 2008 Presidential Election Law, which sets the 20% threshhold, on grounds of it being unconstitutional. But it is hard not to speculate that there must be some soul searching going on within party ranks as to whether this wild-card retired general is their ace or liability. His popularity might be on the rise (surveys in September by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting indicate 19.1% would vote for him over Megawati’s 10.1%) but he still needs to get his party to the polls first. Though many Indonesian voters, in an earnest mood for getting the country back on track, may see him as their best bet amongst a field of questionable candidates and therefore are in a forgiving mode, Prabowo needs to remember that he needs the parties to forgive him as well. And as it is hard to forget his past, he probably needs to provide some truly convincing evidence of a change of heart before he gets another invite.