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A labourer pulls a wooden cart past campaign banners, July 2012

The Ghost Of Suharto In A Dirty Fight For A Dirty City

A frenzied election in Jakarta makes it look like democracy is flourishing in Indonesia. Or maybe it’s a dry run for the return of authoritarianism.

For a country as big and as colourfully dysfunctional as Indonesia, its politics and politicians can be surprisingly dull.

In the 14 years since the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship, the political scene has largely been dominated by a revolving gallery of ageing figures who came to prominence with the old regime. Elections in Indonesia are usually shallow, policy-free affairs, devoid even of snappy sloganeering. And after the dust settles, parties collude and coalesce with each other to such an extent — in a process sometimes called "promiscuous powersharing" — that it's almost impossible to tell their ideologies and platforms apart.

With at least 8.5 million people, diabolical traffic, frequent floods, and rubbish-clogged canals that literally bubble with pollution, Jakarta is “very messed up”.

But in Jakarta, Indonesia's sweaty, congested capital, politics is looking a little more, well, interesting these days. September 20 will see the final round of voting for the city's governorship, after months of passionate and sometimes ugly campaigning.

Joko Widodo, universally known by his nickname Jokowi, the charismatic and wildly popular mayor of the Central Javanese city of Solo, is generating by far the most buzz.

Running on his successful record in Solo, Widodo is riding a wave of popular enthusiasm — and some very clever brand management — in an attempt to unseat the incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo, who was elected in Jakarta's first democratic gubernatorial election, in 2007.

With at least 8.5 million people (and that's just the main city area, not counting the population of its massive suburban sprawl), diabolical traffic, frequent floods, and rubbish-clogged canals that literally bubble with pollution, Jakarta is "very messed up", says Marco Kusumawijaya, the director of the urban studies think tank Rujak. "Many problems have been delayed solutions for several decades," he explains, due to the inaction of a series of corrupt and disinterested governors appointed by the central government.

Finally given a voice, the capital's voters look ready to reject, or at least severely bloody, a government widely seen as being unable to fix the city's problems. Despite stronger party backing and more money, the incumbent, Fauzi, lost first round voting in July to Widodo, who gained more than 42 per cent of the vote, versus the governor's roughly 34 per cent.

This process may make you inclined to feel optimistic about the maturation of democracy in Indonesia. After all, at 51 years old, the underdog Widodo is a relatively young and dynamic candidate with a much-praised track record as mayor. And Widodo's campaign has been slicker than anything yet seen in Indonesia, with pithy TV spots, a message of renewal aimed at a frustrated middle class, and clever branding that has seen his trademark clothing item — a casual-looking, blue-and-red-plaid shirt — become iconic. There is even an Angry Birds-style online game in which Widodo hurls exploding tomatoes at criminals, rubbish and corrupt officials.

Clearly rattled, the campaign of the much more buttoned-down Fauzi launched its own game a month later, but more significantly, it has resorted to repeatedly flirting with racism and Muslim-majority chauvinism directed at Widodo's running mate, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is both a Christian and a member of Indonesia's much-maligned ethnic Chinese minority. Unsubstantiated rumours have spread that Fauzi's sympathisers were behind fires that broke out both in Solo and Jakarta neighbourhoods sympathetic to Widodo.

<p>Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg via Getty Images</p>

Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gubernatorial favourite and Mayor of Solo, Joko Widodo

Yes, it may be angry and partisan, but it looks more like a clear choice than the Indonesian populace has seen in most elections since Suharto's fall.

But rising along with this surge of enthusiasm is a man who terrifies Indonesian liberals and who is likely causing the gnashing of teeth in Western embassies: Prabowo Subianto. The former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo was a commander of Indonesia's notorious army special forces, Kopassus. He stands accused of human rights abuses including orchestrating bloody anti-Chinese riots in 1998 and kidnappings, including the disappearances of more than a dozen pro-democracy activists. He freely admits to the kidnappings, but says he was only following orders. He has since tried to bury the ghosts of the past by recruiting some former kidnap victims into his party.

Prabowo is believed to be blacklisted from travel to the United States and is reviled by activists and many victims of the regime. But thanks to his clever image rehabilitation, he's also the odds-on favourite to be president when Yudhoyono steps down in 2014.

Prabowo has emerged as a key backer of Widodo via his party Gerindra, a populist outfit that was his own vehicle for an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2009. The only other party to back the challenger Widodo is the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. Widodo's unprecedentedly slick campaign has been shaped in large part by Gerindra operatives and media professionals who work for Prabowo's family.

It's widely believed that in marketing one outsider as the candidate of change, Prabowo's people are setting the stage for doing the same in 2014.

Widodo’s campaign has been slicker than anything yet seen in Indonesia. There is even an Angry Birds-style online game in which Widodo hurls exploding tomatoes at criminals and corrupt officials

"In my opinion, regardless of the fact that the winner will be Jokowi or Fauzi Bowo in the next election, the real winner is Prabowo," says Burhanuddin Muhtadi, a director of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), a polling firm.

Like Widodo, Prabowo has carved out a niche as a populist and charismatic candidate among an uninspiring field. But he has suffered from being widely loathed in the Chinese community over his alleged role in the 1998 violence. And without at least having some of Indonesia's wealthy Chinese community onside, Prabowo faces a huge challenge against other competitors in 2014, a field which so far consists of himself and Aburizal Bakrie, a tycoon who owns everything from a TV news channel to the Brisbane Roar football team. By backing Widodo's Chinese running mate, Basuki, Prabowo has succeeded in clearing a lot of bad blood with the Chinese business community, Muhtadi says. And for the country at large, only 27 per cent of people are even aware that Prabowo was forced into an early retirement for his role in the 1998 kidnappings, according to a survey by another firm.

The ex-general's appeal lies in the same force that has driven Jakarta's gubernatorial election: popular dissatisfaction with a dithering, uncharismatic political class.

"I think many Indonesian voters recently [are] dissatisfied with SBY," Burhanuddin says, referring to the incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by his initials, "because SBY is seen by many as very weak, indecisive, and some people are looking for a figure with decisive performance, and they see Prabowo as an alternative."


An Angry Birds-style game released by the Joko Widodo campaign

Although a Prabowo presidency is largely an unknown quantity, it presents the threat of a return to more authoritarian politics, Muhtadi says. But there are few viable alternatives out there.

Prabowo, for his part, has repeatedly said he is a committed democrat, and has saved his most strident rhetoric in arguing for the empowerment of the country's rural and working poor.

At campaign events, Widodo's magnetism is obvious. Arriving more than two-and-a-half hours late to a rally in north Jakarta, the candidate pushes his way through the crowd, ascends the stage and raises an instant cheer when he pins his lateness on Jakarta's infamous traffic jams. The crowd, in a heavily Chinese area, is covered in blue-and-red plaid and seems rapt.

But rising along with this surge of enthusiasm is a man who terrifies Indonesian liberals and who is likely causing the gnashing of teeth in Western embassies: Prabowo Subianto.

Hermawan, a part-Chinese engineer, tells me the election is the first he's been excited about. And while he used to be a critic of Prabowo, his opinion has changed along with the former Kopassus commander's newly expressed support for the Chinese community.

"We don't have the real info on what happened in '98, who was involved. Maybe Prabowo was just the scapegoat. We haven't heard Prabowo's side of the story, only negative things," he says.

"If I was voting a year ago, two years ago, I wouldn't have supported Prabowo. Now, I'm already starting to be able to."

Later, The Global Mail talks to Widodo — riding with him as his convoy speeds, sirens blaring, from one frenzied campaign stop to another — and the candidate himself acknowledges that he's being carried along by dissatisfaction with the incumbent, Fauzi. He also concedes that as his own star rises, so does that of Prabowo.

"Of course there'll be an impact," he says, laughing, "but that's Prabowo's business."

Read more Aubrey Belford Indonesia coverage, including the viral video shaming Indonesia's elite and putting a spotlight on official corruption, a rare retreat into Bali's astounding village of the deaf, and tension at the seams of Indonesia's diverse social fabric.

2 comments on this story
by Bonzo

Anyone accusing SBY of "weak" or "indecisive" leadership must have short memories. Over his relatively short Presidency SBY has retrieved Indonesia from the brink of Jemah Islamia-style militant extremism while presiding over a bouyant economy of rising regional importance. That's more than one could say about his immediate predecessors. Indonesia's greatest challenge in 2014 is finding a replacement for SBY who will continue his good works.

September 17, 2012 @ 10:53pm
by John Roosa

The article retails the allegations of "the liberals" in Jakarta about Prabowo being "a key backer" of Jokowi. The key word here is "key." Jokowi's popularity has in no way been due to Prabowo. To the extent that his campaign has been "slick" it is because a lot of creative Jakartans have volunteered for it. It hasn't been engineered by some well-paid PR firm. If he wins he will not be beholden to Prabowo and the victory will not have any significant implications for Prabowo's campaign for president. The key question is why the "liberals" keep raising Prabowo's name anytime Jokowi's is mentioned.

September 18, 2012 @ 4:22pm
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