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Common Man and Military Man Face Off in Pivotal Indonesian Election

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo presents Indonesia’s first real chance to break from the entrenched corruption of the political establishment.
July 9, 2014, 2:40pm
Photo via AP

Joko Widodo, the popular “common man” governor of Jakarta, has claimed victory in Wednesday’s election for Indonesia’s presidency — but his opponent, retired General Prabowo Subianto, also thinks that he won, meaning the ordeal could potentially drag on for weeks if he chooses to challenge the results.

The contest in the world’s most populous Muslim nation comes amid allegations that Widodo, the self-professed reformer commonly known as “Jokowi,” was being swiftboated on social media by supporters of Prabowo, a member of the country’s elite who has repeatedly been accused of involvement in human rights violations and killings during the three decade dictatorship of General Suharto that ended in 1998.

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Both candidates represent parties other than that of the sitting president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is required to step down after serving two terms. Jokowi belongs to the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle, headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's independence leader Sukarno, and Prabowo to the Great Indonesia Movement Party, which was essentially invented for his presidential run.

When Jokowi announced his candidacy in March, voters were quick to applaud his clean political record — a rarity in Indonesia — and rise from humble beginnings as a furniture salesman to mayor of the central Javan city of Solo and then, in 2012, Jakarta’s governor. His meteoric ascendance has elicited comparisons to US President Barack Obama, who as a child spent several years living in Indonesia.

Jokowi’s lead, which was at one point in the double digits, had practically evaporated by the time polls opened on Wednesday. Even if he ends up winning, Jokowi stands to lose the popular mandate he appeared to possess only a few months ago. His supporters claim that he was undermined by a torrent of deceitful allegations unleashed over social media by Prabowo supporters and operatives, claiming that the Javanese Muslim was secretly a member of Indonesia’s sizable ethnic Chinese minority and a Christian.

“Prabowo has hundreds of full time staff whose job is basically using Facebook and Twitter to propagate his machine and attack Jokowi,” Alex Arifianto, a visiting fellow specializing in Indonesia at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told VICE News. “If you hear these rumors hundreds of times, thousands of times, you may start thinking, ‘Hey, these might be true.’ ”

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Prabowo meanwhile campaigned as a sort of macho-man, arriving at rallies in a military jeep and making ambiguous pledges to “strengthen” the presidency. In 2001, he told a reporter “Indonesia is not ready for democracy.”

“He’s been pretty successful at playing up nationalist elements,” Amy Freedman, who chairs Long Island University’s political science and international studies department, told VICE News. “People are fed up with politics that are slow and cumbersome, he offers this image of a strong man with decisive leadership, which some people find appealing — at the very least, if you look at pictures of Jokowi, he’s not a physically imposing man.”

If the approach sounds familiar to American voters, it could be because one of Prabowo’s top confidants is Rob Allyn, a former Republican adviser to President George W. Bush.

The real scandal in the country, however, is a deeply buried history of brutal government and military repression, a topic still taboo today and banished from schoolbooks and polite society. Though Jokowi presents Indonesia’s first real chance to break from the entrenched corruption of the political establishment, he has not indicated that he will closely examine the country’s past.

This history found itself in the spotlight last year when The Act of Killing, a film documenting the 1965-1966 genocide of over 500,000 alleged communists in Indonesia, was nominated for an Academy Award.

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Shortly after the genocide, one of its primary architects, General Suharto, took power. A decade later, Prabowo led a company of special forces suspected of killing the leader of newly-independent East Timor after Suharto invaded the tiny former Portuguese colony. (He has denied his involvement.) Prabowo went on to marry one of Suharto’s daughters, be trained by the US military, and rise to oversee the country’s special forces. He was meanwhile implicated in atrocities that include mass killings in East Timor and the abduction and presumed murder of 23 pro-democracy activists towards the end of Suharto’s reign — “unproven allegations,” he says.

“Unfortunately, the majority of Indonesians seem not to care too much,” said Arifianto. “Young voters have no idea what Prabowo did.”

A government fact-finding team found that Prabowo was involved in instigating unrest in the waning days of the Suharto regime. None of the allegations against him have been further investigated, which is par for the course in Indonesia, where there has been practically no acknowledgement, let alone reconciliation, for crimes committed by the military over the past fifty years.

“Prabowo inhabits the worst and darkest parts of the old regime,” Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, told VICE News.

Oppenheimer said he was wary of those surrounding Jokowi, many of whom have themselves been implicated in human rights violations, but said that he supported him because “he has never tortured, never disappeared anyone, never killed anyone, whereas his opponent has.”

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One of the film’s central figures, a death squad member named Anwar Congo, who in the movie surreally re-enacts the murders he committed in the mid-60s, told Oppenheimer that he hoped Prabowo would win the election.

“You have a fear of justice and reconciliation because reconciliation might lead to justice,” said Oppenheimer. “Virtually everyone with financial or political power came to their position through proximity to Suharto or the military elite. Naturally you’ll throw your weight behind the candidate with ties to the past.”

Unofficial returns show Jokowi in the lead, but if Prabowo refuses to concede and the election results are contested for weeks, there’s a risk that paramilitary groups of the sort Congo was involved with will get involved.

“These groups have given their endorsement to Prabowo, and in a close election, there’s a very real possibility he could use these groups to create havoc,” Arifianto said.

Beyond Prabowo’s ties to Islamist groups and the belief that Jokowi can actually follow up on his anti-corruption promises, Arifianto noted, very little separates the two in terms of foreign policy. But voters have been mostly focused on the economy, whose previously torrid growth has slowed in recent years.

For investors, activists, and neighboring countries, a Jokowi presidency is preferable. “To say that Prabowo has a controversial reputation is an understatement,” said a leaked 2008 US cable from Jakarta.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford