Indonesia’s Prabowo Campaign Slowed by Hoax

Indonesian opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s momentum has been slowed and his campaign has suffered a major embarrassment from a 69-year-old actress and now-discredited member of his campaign with a false claim that she had been beaten by men who were suspected of being allies of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

With tears in her eyes, Ratna Sarumpaet confessed publicly that she had been "whispered to by Satan" to fabricate a story that she had been beaten by two to three men at an airport in Bandung, West Java, resulting in facial bruises, although the bruises actually stemmed from plastic surgery.

"So there is no persecution. It's just a fictitious story given by the Devil to me," Ratna said in front of dozens of journalists at her home on Oct. 3. She apologized to Prabowo, who had clearly believed her lie and held a press conference to show his sympathy. "I am not able to see how Mr. Prabowo defended me at a press conference," she added.

The general election is scheduled for April 17, 2019, with Prabowo, the losing candidate in the 2014 to Jokowi, as the president is known, seeking once again to rise to the leadership of the nation of 230 million people. A survey published by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) last week, indicated that Jokowi and his running mate KH Ma'ruf Amin are continuing to run substantially ahead of Prabowo and his vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno by an overwhelming 60.4 percent of respondents against just 29.8 percent for the underdogs.

Ratna’s case has become a major campaign issue with staying power. Amien Rais, the former chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly and a major Prabowo supporter, was questioned by the Jakarta police in connection with the case. Amien was escorted to the police stations by hundreds of Muslims from an organization known as 212 Alumni, which held raucous demonstrations that led to charges against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who lost the governorship and was later jailed for blasphemy.

"Ratna Sarumpaet has spread false news and has become a turmoil in the community. With the establishment of a suspect by the police, it means that there are two sufficient pieces of evidence, that is correct," said Mahfud M, the former Chairperson of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, who said he believes that the legal process must continue. "In criminal law, its violators face the state or society so that they cannot be completed simply by apologizing," he said in a public lecture in Semarang City.

Mahfud argued that Prabowo and some members of his team who have allegedly been spreading hoaxes should have taken the matter to authorities.

Ratna, an increasingly prominent member of Prabowo's campaign team, became a major figure reaping sympathy, especially among women. She often delivered sharp criticism of the government, accusing the Jokowi administration of producing false news and hoaxes, saying it hadn’t kept its promises during the campaign.

"I apologize to all the parties I have criticized and this time turned to me." she said.

"This time I'm the creator of the best hoax, shocking the whole country."

Playing Victim

Ratna became a cause célèbre on Oct. 2 when photos of her bruised face began circulating on social media and several party officials supporting Prabowo took to Twitter to condemn the alleged parties behind the incident.

"Ma'am @RatnaSpaet has indeed been persecuted and beaten up by unscrupulous people. It is bad and very savage," tweeted the vice chairman of the Gerindra Party, Fadli Zon on his Twitter account @fadlizon on Tuesday (2/10).

A member of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Mardani Ali Sera, equated the alleged Ratna beating with attacks on members of the anti-graft agency, Novel Baswedan and the 2004 murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Mardani said he rejected such violence, which he said was practiced by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), an organization often associated with Jokowi.

"The Ratna beating is a disaster of Democracy and Humanity, this is an insult to Pancasila, trampling on democratic governance. Munir & Noval Baswedan have not yet finished, now @RatnaSpaet," said Mardani’s tweet, which he has now removed.

Several other tweets came from officials from other Prabowo supporters, including the Democratic Party and the National Mandate Party. They disseminated photos of Ratna's presumably beaten face, adding that the attack was anti-democratic, silencing vocal figures and a human rights violation.

Prabowo, accompanied by the main figures of his campaign team, denounced the woman’s supposed injuries as a “cowardly act." He added that he couldn't think of anyone who could persecute old women. "A 70-year-old woman who fights for the poor, justice, democracy, and this attitude is a serious threat to democracy," he said.

But the hoax didn’t last long. A police investigation found she had never been beaten and that the bruises had accompanied plastic surgery at a Jakarta hospital. The evidence forced her to confess.

Prabowo and his team then hurriedly apologized and claimed they had been victimized. Later members of the team charged that Ratna may have been deliberately infiltrated in their group to weaken Prabowo.

Nonetheless, it is the third time Prabowo has been caught using inaccurate information in the current campaign. In addition to the persecution issue against Ratna, Prabowo also used the results of a poll of several non-credible survey institutions to claim he had actually won the 2014 presidential election when head lost decisively to Jokowi. Prabowo also used a book that turned out to be fiction to argue that Indonesia would fracture into other states, disbanding in 2030.

Ratna Left Alone

Although Ratna and the Prabowo team have apologized, the police have made her a suspect on charges of spreading false news so as to create chaos in the community, with a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. The police are now intensifying the investigation by examining a number of witnesses, especially from the Prabowo team.

Trying to contain the damage, the Gerindra Party reported Ratna to the police.

"We keep reporting (to the police) even though we all know that Ratna has been detained and named as a suspect, but this is a form of law enforcement because Gerindra is greatly disadvantaged," said Secretary of the Jakarta Gerindra Legal Advocacy Agency, Mohamad Taufiqurrahman.

Hoax and Electability

The Deputy Chairman of Jokowi's campaign team, Abdul Kadir Karding, sought to capitalize on the gaffe, saying he suspected Prabowo and his team would find it increasingly difficult to get support from voters.

"We are eastern people who generally dislike the lies that are displayed as part of the campaign," Karding said. "It could be that supporters of Mr. Prabowo, especially those who are hard and loyal, have not changed. But it is difficult to increase with the Ratna Sarumpaet hoax case."

Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting Executive Director Djayadi Hanan said Ratna's hoax has produced a negative image of Prabowo-Sandi, but doesn’t automatically turn off their chance to win. Prabowo, he said, has a solid supporter that makes electability stable at around 30 percent.

"Supporters are difficult to change even in the face of an issue that is like a hoax," said Djayadi.

With elections six months away, they also still have time to improve themselves, Djayadi said. Moreover, it is possible that Jokowi and his team can also make mistakes. "It could be that similar issues can befall Jokowi's camp. This will make the situation balanced. The presidential election is still months away," he said.

Nevertheless, he concluded that Prabowo and his team must work hard to catch up and at least must add 20 percent of the votes to secure their position.