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Nailing Indonesia's next president


Joko WidodoOn 9 July, Indonesians will vote on their next president by punching a hole in a ballot paper with a large nail. Timor-Leste used the same system for its historic independence ballot in 1999. The issues differ of course but the choices to be made are equally stark. Democratic development and human rights in Indonesia will either advance or regress depending on who is nailed next month.

The two aspirants are Joko Widodo aka Jokowi (pictured), the current Governor of Jakarta, and Prabowo Subianto, a retired general. As dictated by Indonesia's social and religious demographic, both are Muslim and Javanese. On most other counts, including human rights, they are chalk and cheese.

Jokowi's professional achievements are in business and then in local government, first as the popular mayor of Solo then as governor of sprawling Jakarta, one of the world's mega-cities. One could easily conclude that this background and his reputation as a no-nonsense, can-do leader, do not make for best practice in human rights.

What distinguishes Jokowi, however, is his demonstrated sensitivity to people. Faced with the massive challenges of transforming over-crowded, highly stressed urban environments into liveable, modern and functional cities, he has consistently shown great respect for the poor, seeing them as stakeholders with legitimate rights and interests, not as obstacles blocking progress.

Jokowi's approach, marked by patient dialogue, practical alternatives, pioneering welfare measures, and intolerance of incompetence and corruption, has endeared him to masses of people. He has also proved that it works. His modus operandi is the antithesis of the culture of violence, top-down development, opportunism and force that characterised the Soeharto years. The community sees him as one of them, not as overbearing big business and big government. Not surprisingly, his campaign slogan translates 'Jokowi is us'.

His vision statement includes a number of references to human rights, but one senses that his understanding of human rights is not from books but is instinctive and owes much to his humble origins and personal journey. This translates into policies that emphasise human resources, welfare, education and the prioritisation of neglected regions like Papua, the first place he visited during his campaign.

Jokowi impresses as genuine and authentic. His candidacy represents an historic opportunity for ordinary Indonesians to be represented at the highest level and for social and economic rights in particular to be mainstreamed and lift millions out of poverty.

Prabowo's baggage is of a different kind altogether. He comes from a distinguished family which has made a significant contribution to Indonesian public life over a long period, but is inextricably linked to the Soeharto era and its military and human rights excesses. He served in Timor-Leste on four occasions and is most closely associated there with the Kopassus special forces who perpetrated many of the worst abuses and were instrumental in establishing the notorious militia. Not that this sorry record is getting much profile in Indonesia.

He was dismissed from the military in 1998 and banned by the US over allegations relating to the abduction, torture and disappearance of Indonesian human rights activists. A former head of military intelligence recently claimed he was a psychopath. He was visibly stung when the issue was raised during the first presidential debate but, incredibly, he went on to claim he was the staunchest defender of human rights in Indonesia.

His manifesto, however, makes only passing reference to human rights and, if elected, he is sure to ignore the legitimate claims to justice and reparations of the multitude of victims of past human rights abuses, whether Indonesian or Timorese.

Prabowo is pitching to a number of publics and mixing his messages in the process.

He has set out to woo the right-wing, nationalist, Islamic vote, and plays up his macho image. He arrived at his first public rally by helicopter and rode into the stadium on horseback. He is calling for Soeharto, his former father-in-law, to be declared a national hero, and is backed by Golkar, the party created by Soeharto.

It works. His supporters describe him as tegas or forceful, the sort of strong man needed to instil discipline, to arrest the perceived excesses of liberal democracy and to give diverse Indonesia the competent management that civilian presidents have so far failed to deliver.

On the other hand Prabowo is plainly bugged by the negative image many Indonesians have of him. In a strong speech at the beginning of the campaign, he sought to disarm critics by praising Jokowi and declaring his commitment to democracy, pluralism and peace.

The appeal to both sides of the fence appears to be paying off. With two weeks to go, the polls show that Prabowo is closing on his rival. Voters seem to be forgetting that, unlike Jokowi, Prabowo has never been in government and that his ability to deliver on his many big promises can only be assessed against his chequered military career. Let's hope Indonesian voters are as smart as politicians always claim they are and drill deeper.

In the meantime, Indonesian colleagues joke about needing to seek political asylum in Australia, just in case.


Pat WalshPat Walsh is currently visiting Jakarta. He co-founded Inside Indonesia magazine more than 30 years ago this year.

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Indonesia, Jokowi, Prabowo Subianto, Jakarta



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Existing comments

Thank you, Pat. That was as incisive an insight into the relative merits of the two candidates as you are likely to see anywhere. I've always liked Jokowi.

Edward Fido | 23 June 2014  

I am so grateful for this comment Pat, filled as I am with a sense of foreboding. Indonesia has done so well in recent years in many respects, despite the baggage it carries from the Soeharto years. The future of the Indonesian people would surely be best served by a person like Joko Widodo, and one would hope that the people of the Papuan provinces would be too. Old sins cast long shadows.

Susan Connelly | 23 June 2014  

I agree. Praboyo is a wolf in sheep's clothing. In the campaign, he is soft-soaping Australia while Jokowi is standing up for Indon sovereignty. Don't be fooled - democracy, human rights and Indon-Aust relations will all be better served by a Jokowi win. But I fear for the election outcome. Money talks in Indonesia. Praboyo has the powerful and corrupt Golkar Party backing him. Tony Kevin

Tony Kevin | 23 June 2014  

Very clear and readable article. God bless Indonesia and its great people.

Eugene | 23 June 2014  

Thank you Pat for making clear the choice facing the Indonesian people next month. Somehow I doubt if the majority of the Indonesian people is aware of the significance of the election not only for themselves and their families but for Indonesia as a whole. Regrettably recent Australian experience has shown that images and slogans carry more sway than principles and policies. If Jokowi wins I should hope the ALP might draw some inspiration from his behaviour and his platform.

Uncle Pat | 23 June 2014  

There's something self-revealing about our attitude towards our nearest neighbour Indonesia. Although she was released from 350 odd years of Dutch colonial bondage and gained her independence in 1949, she remains a suspicious neighbour to us. Even our dealings with the regional neighbours are couched in commercial terms; in other words, what's in it for us, our businesses. How do we profit from the vast consumers' markets that surround us. Under Abbott, we extend our political arrogance by "turning the boats" to Indonesian waters, without so much of an excuse. Our navy willy-nilly wandered into their territorial waters as if it's our own back water. Until we are rid of our predominantly Anglo-Celtic colonial attitude, we'd never realise that we're the Johnny- come-latelies in this God's little acre.

Alex Njoo | 24 June 2014  

Thanks for this. Very accurate and clear, with some fresh insights. Timely too as the scales shift in favour of Prabowo.

Anna Hassett | 24 June 2014  

I respectfully beg to differ. Both Jokowi and Prabowo were asked to run by committees of the Indonesian military, who control their every move behind the scenes. Both candidates are equally committed to maintaining the military's important role in the country's politics.

Paul White | 25 June 2014  

Two worrying scenarios: Prabowo wins, or Jokowi wins by a narrow margin and Prabowo won't accept the result. This is the election for Jokowi to lose, not his rival to win. Prabowo has a born-to-rule vision of himself and his destiny. He's set his heart on the Presidential Palace with grim single-minded determination over the past five years. Will he accept defeat from a provincial furniture salesman and ride off into the sunset? The reformers have only themselves to blame. They should have prepared for this election years ago and groomed an appropriate candidate, not left it till the last minute. Jokowi is also alone - he's the only one who doesn't come from the sleazy, incestuous military-dominated cabal that runs Indonesia. One of the most telling scenes was during last Sunday's TV debate when his VP candidate colleague Jusuf Kalla went backstage in a huddle with his rival Hatta, like two old mates, leaving Jokowi by himself.

Duncan Graham | 26 June 2014  

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