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Indonesia at a crossroads

Jokowi and Prabowo
Jokowi (left) and Prabowo - Photograph: sinarharapan.co

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The choice in the presidential election cannot be more obvious and Azmil Tayeb wishes that the voice of hope and genuine change will prevail in the end.

Jokowi and Prabowo
Jokowi (left) and Prabowo – Photograph: sinarharapan.co

The Indonesian presidential election on 9 July offers real and stark choices for the voters: one candidate represents a clear break from the status quo and the hopeful prospect for concrete reforms; the other is an unreconstructed symbol of the authoritarian past who promises to lead the country to her much deserved glory with his strong, uncompromising hands.

It is seldom that voters are presented with such ideologically – and temperamentally – contrasting candidates and the feeling deep in one’s gut that one’s vote can significantly alter the course of the nation for years to come – for better or for worse.

To wit, the candidates’ bios cannot be more disparate. Joko Widodo, or popularly known as Jokowi, was the former mayor of Solo in Central Java and the governor of Jakarta. He came from a humble background, trained as an engineer but ended up running a successful medium-size furniture exporting company before entering politics.

Prabowo Subianto, meanwhile, is the bluest of the Indonesian blue blood, having descended from the early 19th century Javanese king, Diponegoro, or so it is claimed.

Prabowo’s father was the minister of economy in the early years of Suharto’s New Order regime; his brother is currently one of the richest persons in Indonesia (who also bankrolls his presidential aspiration); and he was once married to former president Suharto’s daughter. Prabowo was the former head of Kopassus (Special Forces) and Kostrad (Strategic Command) before he was ignominiously discharged from the military for kidnapping democracy activists in 1998.

But bios alone should not be the only deciding factor. It is apparent from the four presidential debates (and one vice presidential debate) that the two candidates offer diametrically opposing visions on how to lead the country.

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Jokowi, drawing from his experience as mayor and governor, proposed concrete and pragmatic solutions for many issues that are currently plaguing Indonesia.

Prabowo, on the other hand, having no previous governing experience, could only counter with his trademark bluster and empty rhetoric.

For example, when it comes to reduce spending waste and bureaucratic inefficiency, Jokowi came up with a plan to make many government services online.

Prabowo kept harping on the abstract notion of “kebocoran” (leakage) but provided no clear policy solution to plug it.


Further compounding the fuzziness of his policy, he added that the funding for some of the social programmes he had proposed will come from the money saved once the “leakage” is stopped.

On several occasions during the debate, Prabowo made clear his policy clueless-ness by simply agreeing to the plans proposed by his opponent without offering anything in return.

As for foreign policy, a matter that is of interest to Malaysians, both candidates run as strong nationalists but the approach could not be more different.


Jokowi stressed the importance of diplomacy – between governments, businesses, and people.

Prabowo, keeping up with his military bravado, threatened to take aggressive actions against any nation perceived to be impinging on Indonesia’s interests and sovereignty. Although the spectre of regional war might be remote and highly unlikely, it would still be quite disconcerting for neighbouring countries to deal with an Indonesian president that is well-known for his belligerency, unilateralism, and short temper.

But there are other more dire reasons why the importance of this presidential election cannot be overstated.

Prabowo is the epitome of the worst excesses of the Suharto’s authoritarian regime, which ended on 21 May 1998 after 32 years. It is not just because he was part of the Suharto clan, which in and of itself should have shamed him from seeking public office in the reformasi era, but it is his despicable human rights record that speaks abundantly clear of the kind of person he is.

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Prabowo was implicated in some of the worst atrocities in East Timor during the brutal separatist war in the 1980s and more importantly, he was convicted and dishonourably discharged, by his own military superiors no less, for kidnapping democracy activists who protested against his former father in-law, Suharto, in 1998; thirteen of them are still “missing” to this day.

Prabowo has stated in various public speeches of his intention to return Indonesia to the original constitution of 18 August 1945, which overwhelmingly concentrates governing powers in the hands of a president.

He has railed against “Western-style” democracy, which he claims is not culturally suitable for Indonesia and is a hindrance to the country’s long overdue greatness.

During a recent speech, in a barely veiled contempt for the democratic process made, he advocated the abolition of direct elections for the presidency, the very same process that could possibly make him the next president of Indonesia. In essence, he is exploiting the democratic system to ultimately dismantle it. An analogy to Hitler and his National Socialist Party in 1930s Germany is not too far-fetched.

A lot can be said of a person by the company he keeps. In Prabowo’s case, he surrounds himself with unsavoury opportunistic characters looking for a piece of the pie should he get elected.

It is a coalition that is bereft of any ideology other than preserving the status quo and raiding the state coffers. It ranges from Aburizal Bakrie, a corrupt oligarch and failed presidential candidate himself, to ultra-conservative Islamic parties such as PKS and PPP and the vigilante group, Front Pembela Islam, that sees Prabowo as the true defender of the faith to known premans (gangsters) like his former East Timorese henchman, Hercules.

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Jokowi, on the other hand, is what Prabowo is most definitely not: down-to-earth, soft-spoken, people-oriented, technocratic, and not tainted with an authoritarian legacy. He has demonstrated his governing chops with a proven track record as mayor and governor in tackling issues such as unruly street vendors, flood management and health care for the poor. He was even voted number three in the world’s top ten mayors in 2012.

Jokowi also serves as an inspiration for regular folks that it is possible to rise to such lofty height from a humble beginning. He also cobbles a political coalition that seems to be devoid of the usual horse-trading and is unified by the common ideal to further deepen the democratisation process in the country and to do away with the old corrupt ways of doing business.

For Indonesians all across the globe, this presidential election should not be seen as a mere democratic ritual that offers the indistinguishable options of choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The stakes are high as one’s vote can either move the country further away from its dark authoritarian past or pull it back into Suharto’s New Order era and overturn all the hard-fought democratic reforms in the past 16 years.

The choice cannot be more obvious and it is wished that the voice of hope and genuine change prevails in the end. Salam dua jari (Jokowi’s campaign slogan) from Malaysia.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Dr Azmil Tayeb, the honorary secretary of Aliran, is a political science lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He is the winner of the 2019 Colleagues' Choice book prize (social science category) awarded by the International Convention of Asia Scholars for his book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls
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