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Reflections on Indonesia's presidential election

Posted By on July 31, 2014 @ 12:15

Who are Jokowi's supporters?

The election of Jokowi is a good result for Indonesia, for Indonesia’s neighbours and for democracies in particular. State visits to democracies by a President Prabowo would have been dogged by protests. It’s also an indictment of Indonesia’s legal system that he was qualified to run after having confessed to kidnapping democracy activists in the late 1990s, 13 of whom have not been seen since. But it‘s also time for some sober reflection to ensure that analysis of the election and its aftermath don’t perpetuate some of the partisan and euphoric conclusions of some researchers both during and in the immediate aftermath of the elections.

In the lead-up to the election, Prabowo was depicted as a homicidal maniac intent on tearing down democracy and taking Indonesia back to a new New-Order Suharto-style kleptocracy. He was destined to be ‘Indonesia’s Putin’ or Hugo Chavez pushing an extreme form of economic nationalism. That interpretation of Prabowo’s character and intentions could be questioned but for the sake of this article let’s accept it. After all, his own words give some credence to that perception and he wouldn’t be the first world leader to forecast his evil intentions long before coming to power. However, the characterisation has led to a neat dichotomy of good versus the evil—Jokowi versus Prabowo, the little people versus the oligarchs—and that isn’t particularly instructive.

According to this account, grasping ‘oligarchs’ devoid of values supported Prabowo, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign, but were defeated by the heroic, social-media-savvy volunteers (relawan) and the smarter of the common folk. Such an analysis ignores some inconvenient facts. There were ‘oligarchs’ supporting both sides, some of the pioneers of democracy were supporting Prabowo, and given the close result (47% versus 53), obviously many common folk supported Prabowo. Can those common folk be glibly dismissed as petty criminals (preman) and dupes of the ‘oligarchs’?

Good research is needed focusing on the people surrounding Prabowo to gain a better understanding of how he behaved in public and behind the scenes during the campaign, who his support team was, and what the motivations of its members were. More broadly, who voted for Prabowo and why? Would they have supported his efforts to tear down democracy? What rewards were they seeking from his victory? And, why did figures like Amien Ries, who was in the front line in toppling Suharto, side with Prabowo?

There also needs to be some analysis of whether a deputed despot could have wound the clock back. Would the parliament, press, judiciary, military, police, and the public have stood aside and let it happen? Are the structures and sinews of democracy that weak in Indonesia? Surely even some of the ‘oligarchs’—if only from self-interest—would have opposed such efforts? Such questions shouldn’t be swept under the carpet by euphoric assertions that Indonesia has been saved from a great tragedy that Prabowo’s election would have represented.

It also raises the question of whether Aristotle’s concept of ‘oligarchy’ as the unit of analysis is all that useful if unleavened by other perspectives. If we accept the recent euphoric analysis of the elections the ‘oligarchs’ were routed despite outspending the Jokowi campaign, being better organised and disciplined, and dominating the public electronic-media scene. More research is warranted on how true that analysis actually is. After all, although Jokowi and some of his followers might qualify as ‘aristocrats’, he wasn’t exactly poor. His running mate was a successful businessman from the Suharto era, and other successful business people were either openly siding with Jokowi or hedging their bets. If the theory of ‘oligarchy’ is valid wouldn’t it be more accurate to portray Jokowi’s victory as the victory of a competing set of oligarchs? In any case, although capital in general doesn’t care much about the nature of a regime, as long as it is stable and predictable, it’s not necessarily the case with domestic capitalists who might see democracy and legal certainty in a different light to international capitalists.

Moreover, it seems simplistic to claim that the elite supporting Prabowo were simply dupes of the oligarchs—mindless followers of the dictates of the subliminal messages of the Deep State. The parties of nearly two thirds of the recently-elected parliamentarians supported Prabowo—so it’s obvious that many of the people who elected Jokowi weren’t following the dictates of their party or the oligarchs, or at least not their oligarchs.

More objective analysis of the election would also give a clearer picture of who Jokowi’s supporters were and what they expect from him. Before the elections, Jokowi pledged not to bargain away cabinet posts and other sinecures, but if that’s no longer the case, what opposition is he likely to face from his supporters as well as his foes? It would also help foreign governments, businesses and aid agencies to have a better understanding of how to structure and conduct their relations with the country.

Bob Lowry is an adjunct lecturer at the UNSW Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy. Image courtesy of Flickr user Hendrik Mitarno.

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[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/14590660176_655fef9d8c_z.jpg

[2] Hendrik Mitarno: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hendrik_mintarno/14590660176