September 07, 2014

Indonesia’s New President

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Indonesian Election Commission officially announced on July 22 that the victor of the final round of Presidential elections held on July 9 was Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. The elections were hard fought with the opposition engaging in dirty tricks in a belated effort to pip him at the polls. The opposition’s propaganda blitz did succeed in whittling down the 20 per cent lead that Jokowi had initially enjoyed before the campaign had begun in earnest. In the final tally released by the election commission, Jokowi, a man who grew up in a slum in the city of Surakarta in central Java province, won 53 per cent of the vote. Jokowi had started life as a simple carpenter and then became a furniture exporter. He won national fame after he served two terms as mayor of his city and then went on to become the governor of Jakarta in 2012. The capital city, which was mismanaged for decades, made a turnaround under Jokowi. Very soon he become the most popular politician in all of the Indonesian peninsula. The decks have now been cleared for Jokowi to take over the leadership of the world’s fourth most populous nation. Exit polls had predicted weeks before that Jokowi had a comfortable lead over his rival, the retired army general and businessman, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo ended up with 47 per cent of the vote. Nearly 135 million Indonesians had cast their ballots in the elections with Jokowi winning by a margin of more than eight million votes. Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Gen. Suharto, without producing any substantial evidence has been alleging electoral skullduggery. He has doggedly refused to concede defeat. CONTROVERSIAL PAST Probowo has had a controversial past. His military career was dogged by accusations of human rights violations and corruptions. He has been held responsible by human rights groups for the killings and disappearances of more than a thousand people during his stints as commander of Indonesian Special Forces in East Timor and in the days preceding the ouster of Suharto. The military was deployed to quell massive pro-democracy protests in the late nineties against the authoritarian and corrupt rule of Suharto. The charges against Prabowo have been taken seriously in Washington and other capitals. In fact, the US ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Blake, during the last days of the election campaign, asked for a probe into the allegations that Prabowo had a role in the abductions and torture of students in the dying days of the Suharto regime. Prabowo like some other leaders from the developing world has been denied visas to western capitals. Of course the restrictions would have been lifted if he had won the elections as in the case of the current prime minister of India and the president of Kenya. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Prabowo’s camp had implausibly claimed victory as soon as polling was over. Through the auspices of sections of the media controlled by his business allies, there was an effort to mislead public opinion. A day before the election commission announced the results, Prabowo dramatically stated that he was withdrawing from the contest. His close advisers later clarified that the result of the presidential polls would only be challenged in the country’s highest court – the Constitutional Court. This Court has the authority to order recounts or a new poll. However, it is unlikely that the Court will intervene and overturn the mandate of the people. Although the chief justice of the Court was recently removed for corrupt practices, Indonesia’s highest court, unlike its counterpart in Thailand, is not totally under the thumb of the country’s military and business elite. Since 2004, the Court has rejected all appeals against decisions made by the Election Commission. The outgoing President Susila Bangbang Yudhoyono, has urged Prabowo to gracefully accept defeat. In the tense days before the election results were announced, the president called on both the sides to exercise restraint and not call their supporters on to the streets. Golkar, the party set up during Suharto’s years in power and which continues to be an important player in Indonesian politics had also asked Prabowo to accept the results. Golkar had extended support to Prabowo’s candidacy during the elections. Now there are indications that Golkar could change course and back the newly elected president in parliament, where he currently lacks a majority. Parliamentary support is essential to pass crucial bills. Prabowo’s chief adviser, his brother and one of the country’s leading businessmen, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, said that they were only seeking additional time from the highest court to investigate “serious problems” on vote tabulations and voting patterns. Significant sections of the country’s business elite have evidently not reconciled with the fact that a man who built his reputation solely on the planks of good governance and anti-corruption, has won the nation’s top post. Jokowi, who will be the seventh president of the country, is the first to emerge from a non-elite or non-military background. Among his political role models is President Sukarno, the man who led Indonesia to independence and the architect of Panchsila (five principles) doctrine. The five principles includes the concept of social justice for all, is supposed to guide political life in the country. Sukarno’s daughter, the former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDP-I) were the main backers of Jokowi’s candidacy. During the election campaign, the opposition even went to the extent of alleging that Jokowi was secretly a “practicing Christian” and that his father was an Indonesian of “Chinese” origin. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. Islamic parties had done quite well in the parliamentary elections that had preceded the presidential polls. Prabowo was backed by the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard line group that has been carrying out attacks against minorities, bars and night clubs. The Chinese minority is viewed with suspicion by many Indonesians mainly due to their predominance in business. There was a whisper campaign that Jokowi was also a closet Communist. The Party which was the biggest in Indonesia before the bloody purge in 1965 continues to be proscribed in the country. 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the military coup which brought Suharto to power and claimed the lives of at least 500,000 Indonesians. Anybody remotely suspected of having communist sympathies were either incarcerated in remote island prisons or subjected to social boycott till the early nineties. While applying for jobs, ordinary Indonesians had to give an undertaking that they were neither related nor socially connected to people having left wing sympathies. HIGHLY CHARGED NATIONALISTIC RHETORIC Prabowo employed highly charged nationalistic rhetoric on the campaign trail. He proved to be a more accomplished speaker and debater than his main rival. Coming from a wealthy background, he had the benefit of being educated in elite institutions. Speaking in a televised debate which featured both the candidates, Prabowo alleged that the nations’ wealth was controlled by foreigners. Sections of the Indonesian elite and some populist parties are not happy that much of the profits from the country’s vast mineral riches and forests end up in the coffers of western multinationals. Prabowo won most of his votes from the densely populated regions of West Java and West Sumatra. Jokowi’s votes came mainly from Jakarta, East Java and the eastern parts of Indonesia. Jokowi speaking to the media after the official announcement of the results said that it was a turning point for politics in the country. He said that the results signified a break from the past and credited the transition from elite dominated politics to the introduction of direct elections from the local government level to the presidency. The centralised style of leadership that was inherited from the military dominated Suharto era is now hopefully a thing of the past. Jokowi who will formally assume the presidency in October will have the onerous task of steering one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. It is the world’s 16th largest economy and the biggest in the ASEAN grouping. However, around 30 million Indonesians continue to live below the poverty line, surviving on less than $1.50 a day. On the campaign trail, Jokowi had promised to focus on improving the infrastructure of the sprawling archipelago by constructing ten new sea ports and expanding the road network. A Jokowi presidency could witness more transparency in government dealings but the new administration will not be veering too much from the neo-liberal path previous governments have taken. Jokowi, in a recent interview has vowed to “fast track” foreign direct investment proposals, especially in the country’s lucrative mining sector. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of nickel ore and one of the biggest producers of copper, iron ore and bauxite. President Yudhoyono had imposed an export ban on unprocessed ore in January this year. The government demanded that the western companies involved in the mining sector, set up processing plants within Indonesia. Two American companies, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc. and Newmont Mining Corporation account for 97 per cent of Indonesia’s copper production. Western governments are hoping that Jokowi will overturn the ban on exports. Widodo has said that he will be sitting down with all the stakeholders to find a solution at the earliest. There is also pressure on the president elect from international finance capital to remove the subsidies for the poor, especially the fuel subsidy. The fuel subsidy consumes one fifth of the country’s budget. Previous attempts to cut the subsidy were met with widespread street protests. The World Bank in a recent report stated that the growth outlook for the country will be sluggish unless structural reforms are not carried out immediately. These include cuts in the fuel subsidy and more infrastructure investments. Jokowi, the hero of the common man, will have some tough decisions to make when he takes over the presidency in October. Some of the decisions could have an adverse impact on the poorest sections of Indonesian society.