Going Negative in Indonesia

Elect Prabowo Subianto president of Indonesia and the country is in for "prahara," or an ongoing disaster, because of his erratic temper and history of human rights abuses when he was a general. By contrast, his opponent, front-runner Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is a closet half-Chinese Christian who will betray Islam and lead the country to ruin on behalf of his secret foreign masters.

Welcome to Indonesia’s presidential campaign, a two-man race pitting one-time allies against each other. With much of the action taking place in the shadowy world of social media, it is shaping up to be bitter, negative and divisive.

The charges about his supposed Chinese-Christian background, bolstered by images of a presumed marriage document and identification card, were initially ignored by Jokowi until he came out earlier this week to say, “I went on the haj pilgrimage in 2003. And I have performed the minor haj at least four times. My father, mother and siblings have also performed the haj. And so did my wife.”

Jokowi said his critics should find issues to discuss, rather than engaging in racial and ethnic slurs. Prabowo, for his part, blamed negative campaigning on “panic” in the Jokowi camp.

With poll numbers narrowing – although Jokowi retains a healthy 15-point edge in “electability” in most surveys – the two camps are turning increasingly nasty. In a country where racial tensions led to deadly anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in 1998 and carnage between Christians and Muslims in other parts of the country from 1998-2002, using the religion card is sure to put people on edge.

“The general is absolutely furious. He feels Jokowi betrayed him by running for president,” said a close Prabowo ally. “It is going to get uglier.”

Unnamed authors are widely circulating stories on Facebook and Twitter that bring up charges that Prabowo indulged in gross violations of human rights during the May 1998 riots that accompanied the downfall of former President Suharto, who was then Prabowo’s father-in-law.

In the last week, stories have appeared alleging that Prabowo is secretly a citizen of Jordan due to a period of self-exile there following the downfall of Suharto. He denies taking on a second passport.

Even nastier, unsubstantiated rumors have circulated online warning against a plot by the Prabowo camp to assassinate Jokowi and calling on the public to “defend” the Jakarta governor.

“Smear campaigns are a sign of panic. Don’t spread lies and don’t make baseless accusations,” Prabowo said this week.

Both sides have called for police investigations into “black campaigning” and demanded accountability. But the mud hurling is almost certain to continue. Beyond the race itself, the contest is deeply personal.

Prabowo has been seeking the presidency virtually since the time he entered the military academy in the 1970s, friends from his youth have told me. He was raised by his father and grandfather, both important figures in Indonesia’s early years as a republic, to believe he was destined to lead his people. “It is really in his blood,” a childhood friend of his once told me.

Since returning from Jordan, he has been running almost non-stop for office. Now 62, this is widely believed to be his last chance.

Jokowi was supposed to be a stepping stone for Prabowo, who claims credit for bringing the then-small town mayor to the attention of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). She backed Jokowi’s dark-horse bid to become governor of Jakarta in 2012 along with Prabowo’s Gerindra party.

Prabowo was so elated by Jokowi’s win at the time that he called friends to proclaim that it was a sign that he was virtually assured of the presidency in 2014. As Jokowi became a national celebrity, Megawati shed an erstwhile alliance with Prabowo and finally endorsed Jokowi for president in March.

“Prabowo feels betrayed by Megawati and Jokowi,” said one of the general’s friends, explaining why Prabowo went negative early and is likely to stay that way through the July 9 vote.

Jokowi has a delicate task. As the front runner and the guy with the clean image, he is unlikely to trade barbs publicly. “We won’t answer charges unless we absolutely have to,” said one Jokowi strategist. “These attacks make Prabowo look bad anyway.”

The Jokowi camp plans to use its legions of social media activists to disrupt Prabowo’s attacks and keep his campaign off balance.

The attacks could prove damaging to both sides. Prabowo has always been reckoned a wild card because of his hot temper, and his opponents have long said they will use his checkered past against him. They would like nothing more than to see him explode in a public rage that would make him look dangerous.

The rap on Jokowi is that he is inexperienced and the public does not know enough about him. Prabowo’s idea guys hope they can sow enough doubt about his ability and background to swing a sizeable chunk of the roughly 40 per cent of voters who are undecided.

Using religion against Jokowi, however, has been tried before with no success. In 2012, his opponents in the race for the Jakarta governorship anonymously attacked Jokowi’s running mate, a Chinese Christian, on the basis of race and religion and claimed that Jokowi was not a “real” Muslim. Voters saw through the charade. Now that running mate, Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a member of Prabowo’s party, is set to inherit the governor’s chair should Jokowi win, which will make him the highest ranking Chinese Christian politician in Indonesia’s history.

But for now, pettiness and nastiness dominate. Last week, for example, Jokowi sent word that he wanted to attend the finals of Indonesia Idol on Friday May 23. But the television network that airs the show turned down the governor’s request apparently because its owner, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, is backing Prabowo.

The decision puzzled people trying to arrange tickets for Jokowi until the reason became clear. On Friday night, Prabowo strode onto the stage of the popular nationally televised program wearing a tribal head dress from Papua to greet the idols and wave to the crowd.

Score one for the general. But stay tuned. Much more is to come.

This article originally appeared in Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine on Southeast Asia.