Two different eras, two different populists
Aboeprijadi Santoso ; A journalist living in the Netherlands
JAKARTA POST, 28 Maret 2014
With popular Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo entering the country’s highest political contest, Indonesia has proceeded through a new era of populism amid the half-hearted transition from the New Order toward the consolidation of democracy.
Since there has basically never been a genuine break in terms of ideology and political structure since the 1998 Reformasi (Reformation), not surprisingly, many patterns of political leadership and actions have been both retained and renewed, shaping a curious mixture of old and new characteristics.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than with the contradiction between two populist leaders now competing to lead the nation: Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto.
The 2014 elections — some of the biggest in the world, with 180 million eligible voters for some 20,000 regional and national representatives — could, for better or worse, be the promise of a break with the recent past. A promise — that could either be fulfilled or broken.
The time has passed when those with celebrated roles during the independence struggle were destined to rule the state and guide the nation.
With it, patterns of rule and leadership, with which the ruling elite kept their domination by dynamic interaction between state and political parties’ mass mobilization, have gone.
The time has also passed for the system that replaced it, which came through mass violence, and went on with threats justified by ideological hegemony and was maintained by repressive stability and economic development.
Today, a transition toward decentralization and growing markets in the regions have resulted in new patterns. Political leaders and legislators now depend on resources from political and business sectors, and hence they are no longer only controlled by party bosses.
The pendulum has thus swung to local and national groups of wealthy capitalists and oligarchs, the residue of generals from a foregone era, and ambitious nationalist and religion-based political leaders dominating the contest for the state and presidency.
But they all built their resources during the decade of a president, the first in history, who acquired full, if formal, legitimacy for having been directly elected for two consecutive periods, yet has largely failed to use it to better the prospects of the nation.
True, there has been impressive economic growth and political stability. But the last decade also demonstrated an intensely felt time of crisis as a result of the ubiquitous corruption, rising sectarianism, indecisive leadership and apparent decline of national cohesiveness. Even democracy was blamed when things were running wild.
All in all, it has resulted in what is increasingly seen — rightly or wrongly — as the need of strong state leadership, clean political leaders and a sort of national re-awakening.
Both Jokowi and in particular Prabowo have made a lot out of this. Both — aged 52 and 62 respectively — grew up during the New Order era, but learned different lessons, and effectively took quite different fruit from it.
The owner of a local furniture business, Jokowi entered bureaucracy as he was elected to lead a medium-sized city and became popular as he took his job seriously and succeeded in gaining public faith.
As in Surakarta, in Jakarta he has come to be seen as “one of us” by men and women on the streets.
Many may be skeptical of his capability to lead the nation since the urban problems he faced will not provide him with the best framework with which to lead the nation, but his supporters and others have welcomed this precisely as a great challenge for a new leader in new era.
Jokowi comes from a simple family, not from a “who’s who” of public figures. Little, if any, public concern has been expressed about him simply because he is known as being clean of corruption. Above all, he is clean of human rights violations, of which the New Order has been most notorious.
In almost all of these respects, Prabowo has been the exact opposite of Jokowi. A former military leader turned politician who was brought up abroad, versus a homegrown local merchant turned bureaucrat-cum-politician.
Prabowo has never been active in public service other than the military, nor has he ever been elected to any political office. He comes from a well-known aristocratic family — the grandson of a hero and proud son of a renowned economist, once involved in a regional rebellion.
A former general, the only general ever sacked by the corps in the nation’s history, and former son-in-law of the late president Soeharto, he has been politically raised from the very heart of the New Order.
Thus, Prabowo could not have known what it’s like to live a simple life, build a career from the bottom up and be elected for public office — just as Jokowi could hardly imagine what it’s like to be a privileged son and a notorious general allegedly involved in war crimes in Aceh and East Timor.
Jokowi is a native son loyal to his homeland in the way Prabowo never was, as the latter once sought a year-long refuge abroad in self-exile in Jordan.
Jokowi played by the rules of the game, while Prabowo repeatedly and proudly expressed regret for not having attempted a coup d’état when Soeharto resigned. Witnesses, however, said he did attempt it, but failed.
Prabowo never indicated any interest in finding activists who went missing between 1997-1998, for which he was responsible, while Jokowi seems curious about the fate of the missing poet Wiji Thukul and his friends.
If Jokowi has grown popular as a modest but successful bureaucrat, Prabowo has become a wealthy and successful patron of his political party. One grew from the bottom of society, the other from the very heart of state power.
These differences are significant and have historical parallels. Like the first and fourth presidents, Sukarno and Abdurrahman Wahid, Jokowi is a product of the dynamic of his time and the grassroots community that he comes from.
Prabowo, like Soeharto, almost exclusively spent his life and career within the military apparatus and derived his drive and spirit from it. Indeed his party captains have publicly expressed sympathy with Soeharto‘s rule.
This is not just a matter of person and personality. It is Indonesia’s recent history that made them what they are.
Moreover, the legacy of the New Order and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration has shaped conditions in which Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s populist drive could grow.
Jokowi’s background and journey may be a sign of a new era — just as Prabowo’s resemble a recent past. One may represent hope while the other represents fear, or a dubious mix of both. ●