Gordon Campbell on today’s presidential elections in Indonesia

Indonesia is holding presidential elections later today. As usual, New Zealand seems completely uninterested in what happens in Indonesia – even though our huge neighbor is the world’s third biggest democracy and the largest Muslim country on the planet. The two contenders offer a fairly stark contrast, at least on the surface. The retired general Prabowo Subianto enjoys strong ties to the political and economic bosses of the Suharto era. His rival, the maverick Joko “Jokowi” Widowo is the current governor of Jakarta, but is running as a political outsider and reformer. For the first time in 31 years, the Jakarta Post has publicly endorsed a presidential candidate. In an editorial yesterday, the newspaper explained its choice:

As one candidate offers a break from the past, the other romanticizes the Suharto era. One is determined to reject the collusion of power and business, while the other is embedded in a New Order-style of transactional politics that betrays the spirit of reformasi. Rarely in an election has the choice been so definitive. Never before has a candidate ticked all the boxes on our negative checklist. And for that we cannot do nothing. Therefore the Post feels obliged to openly declare its endorsement of the candidacy of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo…

Just in case anyone was left in doubt, the Jakarta Post also made this point:

We are further perplexed at the nation’s fleeting memory of past human rights crimes. A man [Prabowo] who has admitted to abducting rights activists — be it carrying out orders or of his own volition — has no place at the helm of the world’s third-largest democracy.

Our democracy will not consolidate if people’s mind-set remains wedged in a security approach in which militarism is an ideal. A sense that one candidate tends to regard civilian supremacy as subordinate to military efficacy. This nation should be proud of its military, but only if those in uniform acknowledge themselves as servants of the democratic, civilian governance.

Conceivably, those views can be written off as being those of a crusading newspaper picking a local favourite. Yet the contrast between the candidate of crony politics and a contender who has the potential (at least) for a new and cleaner style of politics is genuine enough. Reuters for instance, has also reported critically on Prabowo’s corrupt alliances with the old political and business elites:

Suryadharma Ali quit as the religious affairs minister in May after being named by the federal anti-corruption agency KPK of being involved in embezzling from the $5 billion state fund allocated for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Indonesia, the biggest economy in southeast Asia, has the world’s biggest population of Muslims. Ali has maintained his innocence. “Being made a suspect is not the final say on the matter,” he told local media.

But the presence of Ali and others being investigated for corruption in his coalition raises the question of how effective Prabowo may be if he beats front-runner Joko “Jokowi” Widodo… [Prabowo’s ]other allies include the Prosperous Justice Party, whose chairman was jailed over a beef import scandal, and the Golkar party of business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, several of whose members are facing corruption charges…

Insiders say all of Prabowo’s coalition partners have been promised seats in the cabinet, including a special, senior position for Bakrie, the head of the Bakrie Group, a prominent resources-to-telecommunications conglomerate that has struggled with environmental and debt problems.

Where do the Indonesian military stand in all of this? On the sidelines, at least for now. Karl Jackson, Director of the Southeast Asia Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University, has indicated that, in his view, a Jokowi presidency wouldn’t directly alter the current power balance between the political executive and the military. Jackson remains concerned, however, about the military’s continued reliance on the business community for a significant chunk of their income and basic running costs:

Jackson: The major problem the Indonesian military has is that it is still dependent on irregular sources of income for its own budget. Extraordinarily, it used to be a rule of thumb that only 60% of the budget expenditures in the Indonesian armed forces were covered by the government of Indonesia. This is not the way to ensure that the military adopts a strict set of ethical guidelines. The Indonesian army commanders, especially the territorial commanders, are in a tough spot because they must get money out of the business community in order to provision their troops. What is odd is that each and every one of the country’s democratic governments since 1999 has refused to deal with this problem. Some of them have made noise about getting everything on Budget, but this has yet to happen, which is a real problem.

In the recent parliamentary elections, Jackson points out, the Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), did fairly well but, even so:

Jackson: Jokowi’s coattails were not nearly as long as everyone expected. I think the Indonesian electorate was hedging its bets until it saw who the presidential candidates were. Political parties are not terribly important in Indonesia; they go up and down. The PDI-P is really the successor to the Indonesian Nationalist Party from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and it has gone up and down depending on what the voters thought of the performance of the party in power. The big loser in the recent parliamentary election was the incumbent President’s party. Political parties in Indonesia are personal vehicles, and they reflect the strength or weakness of the electorate’s perception of that individual. No one knows what Jokowi would be like as president other than that during his short time in the governorship of Jakarta he managed to rule by consensus and get a few things done. I think the Indonesian electorate is impatient for someone who will get things done.

Getting what done exactly? Like the recently elected Narendra Modi in India, Jokowi’s programme seems to be based around a set of market-friendly economic policies (to shake up the current elites) along with reforms to root out corruption in the Police force and modernise the education sector. Fuel subsidies would also be abolished, over a four or five year period – a policy that inevitably, will be unpopular with the public.

That’s indicative of the wider problem. Who-ever wins this presidential election, trouble is ahead. After nearly a decade period of reasonably rapid growth, the Indonesian economy has been slowing down. For all of his populist appeal – again, this is very much like Modi – there seems to be little in Jokowi’s economic programme likely to bridge the gap between the wealthy, and the growing ranks of the poor. That’s not what ‘more market’ economic policies are about.

FKA Twigs
For the past couple of years, the young British dancer/musician known as FKA Twigs (she’s of Jamaican/Spanish descent) has turned out a string of remarkable videos. If there is any precedent, they remind me of the kind of imagery that used to be associated 30 years ago, with Grace Jones. Even then, Jones was fiercely assertive. Twigs operates in more ambiguous territory. Her “Papi Pacify” video for instance, used disturbing images of surrender and envelopment to illustrate a lyric about preferring a lover’s lies and deceit to losing them altogether. The video for the fragmented ballad “Two Weeks” from her new album LP1 is just as strikingly preposterous – its done in a Queen of the Egyptian Underworld fashion that evokes the spirit (almost literally) of the late, great Aaliyah.