Indonesia’s Prabowo all but declares he’ll become ‘Suharto 2.0’ if elected


Almost overnight, Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election has transformed into a contest over the very future of democracy in the world’s fourth-most populous country.Indonesia Flag

Prabowo Subianto, the nationalist leader of Gerindra (Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, the Great Indonesia Movement Party), has narrowed what, just last month, was a double-digit deficit to become Indonesia’s next president. Polls suggest that the lead Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) once enjoyed has narrowed or dissipated altogether.

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RELATED: Will Prabowo Subianto become Indonesia’s next president?

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But as Prabowo’s campaign has gained so much momentum over the past month, he’s becoming even more explicit about his views on democracy — and those views aren’t incredibly positive, according to remarks Prabowo (pictured above) made over the weekend:

[Prabowo said] elites presume that Western ideas such as one man, one vote and direct elections for provincial and national leaders are the best on offer. “Even though they’re not appropriate for us. Like direct elections — we’ve already gone down that path. But it’s like someone addicted to smoking; if we ask them to stop, the process will be difficult,” Prabowo said.

“I believe much of our current political and economic systems go against our nation’s fundamental philosophy, laws and traditions, and against the 1945 Constitution,” he said. “Many of these ideas that we have applied are disadvantageous to us, they do not suit our culture,” Prabowo said.

The 1945 constitution, it’s worth noting, is the founding document that allowed the rise of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence leader (who conveniently dismissed the country’s parliament and often invoked ‘temporary’ emergency rule), and the rise of Suharto, the strongman who reoriented Indonesia away from Soviet influence and toward a slightly more liberal path between the 1960s and his overthrow in 1998. It allows for the president to declare emergency rule, thereby suspending typical constitutions protections, provides for an indirectly president by the Indonesian legislature, and it precedes the constitutional amendments of the post-1998 regime that have greatly decentralized power from Jakarta to Indonesia’s provinces.

Though Prabowo hasn’t expressly said that he’d like to end direct elections in Indonesia, he’s made enough statements dismissing democracy and other ‘Western ideas’ that it’s worthy of concern. 

Prabowo earlier today attempted to back away from his anti-democracy comments, arguing that he meant only that Indonesia should consider elections that are less costly to the state and that democracy should unfold in a way to discourage corruption:

“I’m talking practically. So it’s not the concept of democracy. We are convinced we are carrying out democracy. I am going there before the people, before everybody. So there is no hesitation on our part. I was just commenting that the original concept of our founding fathers is actually more towards Westminster parliamentary democracy. He who wins the legislative election, will, you can get majority rule in parliament, you are automatically chief of the executive. In our opinion it could be cheaper and less vote buying etc etc etc. So that was the context of my comments, not that I proposing to cut direct elections, no. If I become elected I get elected by direction elections, that I agree, that I accept.

Nevertheless, it’s a response that makes it seem likely that Prabowo will attempt to revert back to Indonesia’s system before 2004, whereby the Indonesian legislative assembly elected the president indirectly.

If Prabowo sincerely does want to turn back the clock to 1998, he’ll find it will be difficult. In the ensuing 16 years, as even Prabowo notes, Indonesians have become accustomed to electing their president:

“But no I am not proposing going back to any form of undemocratic system. It’s way past us. Our people are already comfortable with democracy. They like to scrutinize all their leaders. And they like to grill us. They like to …‘fit and proper test’. Everything they will check, everything, believe me. Tomorrow I have to declare all my assets, they will check how many goats I have, even.”

Moreover, it’s not the first time that Prabowo has disparaged ‘Western democracy’ or the concept of ‘one person, one vote.’ By championing the notion of ‘consultative governance,’ and promising on the campaign trail to be a ‘strong’ leader, Prabowo is, at minimum, leaning strongly on the concepts developed by Suharto and his authoritarian ‘New Order’ approach to Indonesia in 1967.

His record, too, has worried critics. As the former leader of Indonesia’s special forces, Prabowo became a pariah in post-Suharto Indonesia after widespread accusations that he was involved not only in human rights abuses in the Indonesian military campaigns in East Timor, but that he ordered the kidnapping and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in 1998, prompting his dismissal by his military rival Wiranto, no stranger to charges of human rights abuses himself. It was enough to cause US state department officials to deny Prabowo a travel visa in 2000.

Prabowo allegedly disparaged Indonesian democracy in a 2001 interview published in the past week by journalist Allan Nairn, who has been covering human rights abuses in Indonesia for over two decades.

Prabowo’s rehabilitation campaign began with a failed attempt to win the 2004 presidential nomination of the reconstituted Golkar (Partai Golongan Karya, Party of the Functional Groups), previously the ruling party under Suharto. Instead, Golkar nominated Wiranto. He founded Gerindra four years later as a platform for his 2009 run (he ended up as the running mate of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who now supports Jokowi) and 2014 run.

But his only real experience in state affairs lies in his military service, and he found himself in self-imposed exile in Jordan for much of the immediate post-Suharto period that saw the breakneck pace of reforms in democratization and decentralization.

But from a governance standpoint, Prabowo would almost certain be forced to highly controversial or even illegal means to revert to Suharto-era elements of governance. Under the current iteration of Indonesia’s constitution, Article 3 limits the president to two terms in office, Article 6A provides that the president and vice president are elected directly, and Article 7 of the provides that the president may no longer dissolve the Indonesian legislature in national emergencies.

In 1999, Suharto’s immediate successor B.J. Habibie introduced new press freedom laws, repealed Indonesia’s notorious anti-subversion law, and signed a decree that supports certain key human rights principles. Today, Indonesia has some of the most progressive personal and press freedoms in Asia.

Under the Indonesian constitution, amendments require two-thirds of the full legislature, the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat (MPR, People’s Consultative Assembly). Following April’s parliamentary elections, Gerindra controls just 73 out of 560 seats in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, People’s Representative Council). Together with the various parties supporting Prabowo in the presidential race, the ‘Prabowo coalition’ will control just 353 seats, about 3% short of the two-thirds majority, a measure that likely overstates the extent of the parliamentary support a Prabowo administration would command for everyday legislation, to say nothing of anti-democratic constitution changes.

Though Jokowi entered the presidential race to great popularity and fanfare, Prabowo’s greater social and television media presence, political alliances, populist, national rhetoric and regal campaign style have all narrowed what once seemed a fait accompli for Jokowi.

 A relative neophyte born in humble circumstances, Jokowi served as mayor of Surakarta (or Solo) for seven years before his upset victory in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial race. In less than two years as Jakarta’s governor, he’s become known as a  corruption-free official who instituted a universal health care program in Jakarta and is widely admired for his blusukan approach — i.e., his penchant for meeting everyday citizens and checking up in person on local initiatives across Jakarta.

Though Jokowi nominated former Golkar leader and former vice president Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, Golkar’s current leadership, along with three of Indonesia’s four Islamist political parties have backed Prabowo.

Earlier this week, the ruling Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party) of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) also endorsed Prabowo, a stunning move for a party whose leader has become a champion of Indonesian democracy and a symbol of Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to stability.

Certainly, part of the reason has to do with the longstanding enmity between Yudhoyono and Megawati, who still wields more internal control over the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan) than Jokowi, its presidential candidate. That rivalry dates back to 2004 when Yudhoyono, who previously served as Megawati’s security minister between 2001 and 2004, challenged and defeated Megawati’s bid for a second presidential term in 2004.

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