from Asia Unbound

A Worrying Future With Prabowo?

June 23, 2014

Prabowo Subianto-campaign
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As election day in Indonesia’s presidential election nears, the race seems to be getting closer and closer. While only three months ago Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, had a twenty to thirty point lead in polls, some recent polling suggests that Jokowi’s lead over Prabowo Subianto has narrowed to less than five points. Prabowo also has picked up a huge range of endorsements and has amassed a broad coalition of support among small parties, including several religious parties that are known for turning out their voters. Of course, some of this narrowing is natural; months ago, Indonesian voters were choosing Jokowi in polls before the real presidential campaign had begun.

Jokowi still does have a lead in polls. Several Jokowi supporters note that their man is still ahead despite months of in-fighting in his party and middling campaigning by Jokowi himself, who seemed unable to convert his folksy, mayoral style to national-level campaigning. Now that Jokowi has buckled down, started campaigning harder nationwide, and gotten his party more united behind him, his backers argue, his poll numbers will rebound and he will easily cruise to victory on July 9.

But the possibility of Prabowo being elected now must be taken seriously, and a President Prabowo Subianto would be a problematic, if not outright frightening scenario.It’s not because Prabowo is some kind of Indonesian Hugo Chavez. Though Prabowo talks, Chavez-style, for hours on end, inveighs constantly on the stump about the dangers of foreign investment, and calls for investment in some sectors of the economy to be restricted, his rhetoric is just that–rhetoric. Prabowo and his family hail from an elite business background, Prabowo is the son of a prominent economist, and Prabowo is comfortable (some would say, too comfortable) dealing with Jakarta’s big businesses. Though as president Prabowo might devote more state resources to rebuilding Indonesian infrastructure and propping up some state companies, don’t expect him to actually nationalize investments, or pull out of trade deals Indonesia already has entered, or take any other major steps to put up walls around the Indonesian economy.

In politics rather than economics, though, Prabowo would not be so benign. (I detailed Jokowi’s own, different problems in this post last week.)  A President Prabowo could be dangerous, potentially, for Indonesian democracy. Prabowo has never held elected office and, in previous jobs and on the campaign trail, has shown little interest in listening to and absorbing the views of others. He seems to have entirely missed the fact that Indonesia has undergone a successful democratic transition since the late 1990s, democratization which has included a high degree of decentralization of power away from Jakarta. Prabowo has never really resolved, with any degree of transparency, the circumstances surrounding his sacking from Kostrad in 1998, Indonesia’s military’s strategic reserve force, as well as the innumerable allegations that, prior to his sacking, Prabowo was involved in the kidnapping, torture, and disappearance of pro-democracy activists.

Instead, Prabowo presents himself as the type of Sukarno/Suharto strongman who can whip Indonesia into shape with edicts and iron-fisted law. I believe this self-presentation, more than his populist economic rhetoric, reflects Prabowo’s true beliefs and desires, and is consistent with Prabowo’s actions in his previous military and political career. Prabowo wants to return to an earlier version of Indonesia’s constitution, which would give him massive powers–a contrast to the decentralization that has taken place–and he hardly has the temperament for dealing with the checks and balances normal in any democracy. As Australian National University’s Edward Aspinall has written, “When he [Prabowo] hits a roadblock erected by the parliament, the Constitutional Court, the media, or some other checking institution–it’s all too easy to imagine a President Prabowo invoking emergency powers or taking some other extraordinary method to sweep such obstacles aside.”

Without a doubt, Prabowo’s strongman style is winning over some Indonesians, who worry about Jokowi’s readiness for the national and international stage and have tired of the gridlock that sometimes comes with democracy. Prabowo supporters believe that only tougher, more centralized governance can help boost Indonesian growth up into the seven to nine percent annual expansion the country needs to expand the economy and find jobs for Indonesia’s growing youth population. But in voting for Prabowo, supporters would taking the country backwards, a serious problem in a region that only last month saw a coup overthrow one of its other strongest democracies, and where Indonesia has become a powerful regional voice pushing for democratic change.