Indonesia’s Prabowo Shows his Hand

Last Saturday, Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto rolled a rhetorical hand grenade into the electoral contest, saying that if elected, he would seek to cut back on the electoral system in favor of what he called a “consultative approach” more in keeping with Indonesian cultural traditions.

While his comments may not have gained wide traction among the electorate, with less than a week to go before the election they raise serious questions about what kind of presidency the 62-year-old Prabowo is likely to deliver to a country that the Economist Intelligence Unit has called the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia.

Prabowo made the remarks at a cultural dialogue between candidates in Jakarta, saying his countrymen tended to be overly influenced by western ideas – such as democracy. With voting due July 9, it is uncertain how the former Indonesian Special Forces commander’s remarks will play out among the voters.

“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. Many of these ideas that we have applied are disadvantageous to us, they do not suit our culture,” he told the crowd.

It is not the first time Prabowo has delivered remarks like these. But he has typically escaped scrutiny by saying he is also committed to democracy at the same time. In addition to his volatile behavior as a general, it is worth remembering exactly what kind of milieu produced Prabowo despite his current image as successful businessman and potential statesman.

The country only emerged into a true – if sometimes raucous – democracy a little over 15 years ago with the fall of Prabowo’s former father-in-law, the strongman Suharto, who had run the country for 31 years before his fall from power in 1998. Suharto’s family accrued corruption on a scale experienced almost nowhere else in the world. The family was accused of amassing a fortune estimated by Transparency International to be between US$15 billion and US$35 billion through KKN, the Indonesian acronym for corruption, collusion and nepotism.

Suharto’s second daughter, Siti Hediati Harijadi, known as Titiek, recently appeared on stage with Prabowo. Asked if they might reconcile after having been divorced for a long period, Titiek said, in what was a rhetorical flight since they have lived apart for years, that there was no need for reconciliation because they had never been enemies. Those who have listened to Prabowo’s statements that he will clean up corruption might think about that.

Suharto’s children, particularly his eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, known as Tutut, and his sons Hutomo Mandala Putra, or Tommy, and Bambang Trijatmodjo were handed government contracts for monopolies including toll roads, the national car project, television networks and other ventures. Titiek herself amassed a huge and expensive art collection. The president and his family at one point controlled 25 foundations with stakes in dozens of large companies ranging from flour mills, cement factories, fertilizer factories, toll roads and timber concessions to oil palm plantations.

The family has not vanished from the scene although they are a good deal quieter than during their heyday. They are still a power in the Indonesian economy and society. It is dangerous to believe they will not be back in force with Prabowo’s election.

Since the election of Aburrahman Wahid in 1999 after Suharto’s departure from power, Indonesia has run elections that are sometimes confused and complicated but by and large fair. By fits and starts, the electoral process has begun to clean up a country whose every institution is riddled with graft.

The effectiveness of the electoral process has been demonstrated by the rise via popular ballot to the governorship of Jakarta by Joko Widodo, Prabowo’s opponent in next week’s election. Joko has made remarkable progress in cleaning up a city that had been regarded as almost ungovernable.

A slick, high-tech campaign machine that appears to have borrowed almost the entire playbook of US kingmaker Karl Rove has falsely painted Jokowi, as the candidate is known, as a Chinese Christian and a puppet of both the United States and Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) leader Sukarnoputri Megawati. The onslaught has pushed Jokowi and the PDI-P off balance and resulted in a huge opinion poll swing that now has the election in a statistical dead heat.

Prabowo has since contradicted his earlier remarks, saying in other forums that he supports the democratic process. That may have blunted some of the apprehension on the part of the voters, who arguably aren’t interested in returning to a system that fostered truly massive corruption that the country is only beginning to shake off. But, according to Australian academics Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, writing in the New Mandala website. Prabowo’s plans to dilute democracy are clear.

“In fact, Prabowo in rudimentary form laid out his plans for a radical restructuring of the political landscape many months ago,” they write. “In the Struggle Manifesto of the Gerindra Party, Prabowo’s party alleges that the amended constitution that been in place since 2002 has been a failure." As a consequence of that failure, Gerindra proposed to return to the original constitution “as declared on 18 August 1945.”

Aspinal and Mietzner called the 1945 constitution “an autocrat’s dream: it leaves fundamental issues unregulated, allowing presidents to tailor the political system to their tastes and preferences. Thus, it served both Sukarno and Suharto well in creating their respective authoritarian regimes between 1959 and 1998. For instance, as the 1945 constitution doesn’t even require parliament to be elected, Sukarno appointed his own in 1960.”

The scholars' research into Prabowo’s plans is worth heeding. Prabowo, Aspinal and Mietzner note, expressed dismay at the media for portraying him as non-democratic, and he generally described himself as “a democrat.” That strategy, they say, appears to have worked, with “many foreign diplomats, it seems, [who] leaned back in their seats and breathed a sigh of relief. Such relief, however, is likely to be misplaced.”