APSN Banner

Opinion: So what if Indonesia's presidential frontrunner has his critics in the West?

The National - February 1, 2024

Sholto Byrnes – The world's third-largest democracy goes to the polls on February 14. Indonesians will be voting for their president, vice president, House of Representatives, Senate and local legislative bodies; but most of the focus has been on the presidency.

Will it be third time lucky for Prabowo Subianto, the former general who ran spirited campaigns against the incumbent, Joko Widodo, in 2014 and 2019 but lost to him both times?

Despite their rivalry, Mr Prabowo agreed to serve in Mr Joko's government as his minister of defence in the current administration, and he is standing very much as the "continuity" candidate – a point made not only by Mr Prabowo's brother, business tycoon Hashim Djojohadikusumo, but also by his vice presidential pick, Mr Joko's eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka.

"Our task now is to continue existing programmes and refine them," Mr Gibran said when his candidacy was announced last October. "Continuity and consistency are our capital in moving towards a 'Golden Indonesia'."

Given that Mr Joko has been widely admired as a pragmatic reformist who came from humble origins but made a name for himself tackling corruption and improving conditions for the poor as a local mayor and then governor of Jakarta, the theme of Mr Prabowo's campaign should seem unexceptional, or even welcomed abroad.

But if he is elected – and he will need to win more than 50 per cent of the vote in a three-way race, or face a run-off second round in June – Mr Prabowo must be well aware that he will not be guaranteed a friendly reception in some quarters. A distinctly over-the-top example was an article in The New York Times last month, headlined: "Why this presidential front-runner is stirring fears of the 'death of democracy'."

The reasons? Mr Prabowo was once the son-in-law of Gen Suharto, the authoritarian leader of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. As a special forces general in the 1990s, he was accused of human rights abuses and as a result was long banned from entering the US. But Mr Prabowo denies the accusations and has never been charged in a criminal court. And it is far from obvious that these accusations have much currency in Indonesia, despite the fact that several western NGOs remain preoccupied with them.

When the issue was raised in a presidential debate in December, the audience laughed when Mr Prabowo replied: "So, I don't know what else you want to ask me about this. I've answered so many times already. There are digital records of it." The crowd then cheered when he continued: "Every five years, when the poll shows an increase in my numbers, I get asked the same question." Even his questioner Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java and a rival presidential candidate, had to smile at that riposte.

The reality is that more than 50 per cent of the electorate this year are under 40, and many younger Indonesians are either not familiar with all the details of the chaotic period when Gen Suharto fell from power and the country transitioned to democracy, or they regard such matters as the fixations of their elders.

Even Usman Hamid, the country director of Amnesty International, had to concede that Mr Prabowo's army record is not a major election issue. "The past has happened, it's no longer here," he told Australia's ABC News. "What's important now is, can we have food, can we have jobs, can we have houses, health care and so on."

Several factors help as well. A senior member of the Prabowo-Gibran campaign team is Budiman Sudjatmiko, formerly a high-profile member of Mr Ganjar's party who opposed Gen Suharto's regime and was sentenced to 13 years in jail for his activism in 1997. Surely someone with such impeccable pro-democracy credentials wouldn't be supporting a candidate who would weaken the freedoms that Indonesians now enjoy?

Mr Prabowo's vice presidential candidate, Mr Gibran, is 36 years of age and is fluent in the language of digital upskilling and the green economy that younger Indonesians know are essential to their future. He is a link to the popularity of his father (who could not stand for the presidency again due to term limits), and he communicates to a key sector of voters as one of them in a way that 72-year-old Mr Prabowo could not be expected to.

But Mr Prabowo, always a very fluent public speaker and media performer, in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, has his own connection with the public.

Drawing on his record as a special forces general, he can be commanding and can project strength when he wants to. But he has also developed a new persona, of a cuddly grandpa who wiggles his hips and dances on the podium, videos of which have gone viral on social media. His Instagram account shows him smiling, hugging people, eating at local stalls, feeding and snuggling up to his cat, raising heart signs, and pictured with Mr Joko, who has recently declared that he is allowed to "take sides" – and is presumed to favour Mr Prabowo and his son Mr Gibran.

Elections are never dead certs, and Mr Prabowo's two rivals, Mr Ganjar and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, were recently in talks about forming a pact to stop him if there is a run-off election in June. But recent polling shows Mr Prabowo is just short of 50 per cent support, while Mr Ganjar and Mr Anies are in the low 20s.

If three turns out to be the magic number for Mr Prabowo, it would behove his foreign NGO critics to concentrate less on dark warnings and, instead, ask themselves why so many Indonesians have been persuaded by his undeniably warm and upbeat campaign and believe that he may be the man to lead their country to an even brighter future. It is their choice, and theirs alone, after all.

Source: https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/2024/02/01/so-what-if-indonesias-presidential-frontrunner-has-his-critics-in-the-west