Has Indonesia Bucked the Global Rightward Trend?

June 6, 2019

The conflict between incumbent and winning president Jokowi and his conservative challenger Prabowo has led to violent protests, 8 deaths, and hundreds of injured, but Prabowo's challenge to the election result has largely failed. Does this mean that the rightward shift has been halted?  

Six weeks have passed since Indonesia held a general election, and it took over a month for the official results to be announced. And when these results were finally announced on May 20, two days of violence broke out between police and supporters of the losing opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces general. At least 8 protesters were killed, hundreds were injured, and over 400 were arrested. The incumbent President, Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, won the election with 55 percent of the vote. Prabowo, however, claimed that there was massive fraud.

The Real News Network's Greg Wilpert spoke to Dr. Steve Miller, a visiting lecturer at Ghajar Mada University in Jakarta, Indonesia, about the Indonesian elections.

“You would have to defraud more than 17 million votes in order for him to get close to beating Jokowi,” Miller said. “He's demonstrating his threat to his enemies and his friends as well, and I think he's probably also setting things up for further disruption down the track if there's some sort of crisis, especially an economic crisis. It puts him in a position where he's more likely to be able to play the, sort of, strong man role that I think he would like to play.”

Prabowo lost in the previous election as well, Miller explained, though without the same degree of violence. This election and the subsequent unrest recalls Indonesia in the late '90s, when then-president of Indonesia Suharto resigned amid the Asian financial crisis and rioting.

“There's a possibility of a certain amount of provocation and manipulation here. People are thinking back to 1998 when the old military regime of Suharto fell. In the months beforehand—not in the demonstrations that led to his fall, but a few months beforehand—the military engineered riots in order to try and create an atmosphere of chaos for them to clamp down,” Miller said. “So there are a series of other players who could be trying to manipulate things here, including Prabowo, opponents, and the state and the police themselves.”

Had Prabowo won the election, Wilpert explained, “he would presumably have followed a more conservative or even right-wing course for Indonesia.” Wilpert asked Miller where Jokowi's victory sits in terms of suggesting a counterexample to “the global rightward shift in politics.” Miller explained that it is not quite that simple in Indonesia.

“You could see it as backing the trend in the sense that [Prabowo] lost, and he lost badly. So we're going to have another five years of a bit of a technocratic president, but in other ways, it also reflects some consolidation of forces around a new kind of right which has some similarities with right-wing movements in other places in the world,” Miller said. “In the case of Prabowo, he's a little bit further to that fascist end than maybe somebody like Trump because he comes out of a background in the Suharto-era military.”  


Has Indonesia Bucked the Global Rightward Trend?

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. Six weeks have passed since Indonesia held a general election and it took over a month for the official results to be announced. However, when these results were finally announced on May 20th, two days of violence broke out between police and supporters of the losing opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces General. At least eight protesters were killed, hundreds were injured, and over 400 were arrested. The incumbent President, Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, won the election with 55 percent of the vote. Prabowo, however, claimed that there was massive fraud. Joining me now to take a closer look at what’s going on in Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, is Steve Miller. He’s a visiting lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has also taught Indonesian Studies at several Australian and Indonesian universities over the past 20 years and writes on Indonesian progressive history. Thanks for joining us today, Steve.

DR. STEVE MILLER Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT So this is the second time that Prabowo lost to President Jokowi. Tell us about Prabowo and why he is questioning the results when most election observers are saying that the vote was mostly fair and could not have been swung by a 12 percent margin to change the final outcome.

DR. STEVE MILLER Yeah it seems crazy, doesn’t it? You would have to defraud more than 17 million votes in order for him to get close to beating Jokowi. I think he’s probably looking at a series of short and long-term goals. You’ve got to remember; he ran last time. He lost not quite as badly as this time, but still, it was a big margin which would have required massive fraud in order to have had the election stolen from him. To a certain extent, you can see short-term goals like a little bit of horse trading perhaps. Jokowi definitely has a tendency to want to pull people into his tent if he can. And so, this is a little bit of a show of force, I guess. He’s perhaps maneuvering to try and get a ministry for his grouping. Longer term, I think he’s also trying to consolidate his base. He’s trying to keep people within his, sort of, envelope of information, if you get, if you see what I’m saying. He’s demonstrating his threat to his enemies and his friends as well, and I think he’s probably also setting things up for further disruption down the track if there’s some sort of crisis, especially an economic crisis. It puts him in a position where he’s more likely to be able to play the, sort of, strong man role that I think he would like to play. I think there are—-Sorry.

GREG WILPERT No, go ahead.

DR. STEVE MILLER There are a couple of other interesting questions which people haven’t been asking as much around why he’s doing what he’s doing and why we’ve had the riots because the big difference between this time and last time is the riots. He’s contesting a pretty clear result again, but this time there were sizable demonstrations and significant violence. As you say, hundreds of people injured; eight people are dead. And so, that raises some other questions as well. To an extent, it’s an upping the ante but also, who are the other players? Because there’s a possibility of a certain amount of provocation and manipulation here. People are thinking back to 1998 when the old military regime of Suharto fell. In the months beforehand— not in the demonstrations that led to his fall, but a few months beforehand— the military engineered riots in order to try and create an atmosphere of chaos for them to clamp down. So there are a series of other players who could be trying to manipulate things here, including Prabowo, opponents, and the state and the police themselves.

GREG WILPERT Now, Prabowo is apparently in an alliance within historically Islamist parties. And so, if he had won the election, he would presumably have followed a more conservative or even right-wing course for Indonesia. Now, do you think, does his loss by an even larger margin than five years ago, as you mentioned, does that mean that Indonesia for now is not following the global rightward shift in politics such as took place recently in [India] where the Hinduist, Narendra Modi, won re-election only a few weeks ago?

DR. STEVE MILLER I think, yes and no. He, Prabowo, has sought out and sought to manipulate Islamist support with varying degrees of success, but he himself is not an Islamist. So in that sense, it’s a little bit like Trump and conservative Christianity in the US. He can get his support from there, but that’s not exactly where he comes from. In terms of how it fits in with the broader, sort of, wave of right-wing politics internationally—Yes, I mean, you could see it as backing the trend in the sense that he lost, and he lost badly. So, we’re going to have another five years of a bit of a technocratic president, but in other ways, it also reflects some consolidation of forces around a new, kind of, right which has some similarities with right-wing movements and in other places in the world. You might think of Duterte in the Philippines, but filling this space in between, sort of, mainstream conservatism and fascism proper. In the case of Prabowo, he’s a little bit further to a fascist and then maybe somebody like Trump because he comes out of a background in the Suharto-era military. And so, things like anti-communism play a much bigger role in his politics than I think they do for Trump, for Brexit supporters in the UK, for instance.

GREG WILPERT Now, President Jokowi is set to begin another five-year term. What kind of policies has he been following? You described him as “technocratic.” Can you say a little bit more about that?

DR. STEVE MILLER Yeah. Well, it’s interesting in a sense because unlike Prabowo, when a series of other players and all of the president’s post— Suharto up till now— he comes from a background away from Jakarta. He was a business man in a city called Solo, which is just up the street. Aside from where I’m based in Jakarta, he cut his teeth on regional politics rather than national politics in Jakarta. He presents himself as clean-skinned and I think there’s something to that. So, he’s worked to try and reduce corruption, tried to improve the professionalism of the public service. He’s tried to invest significantly in infrastructure, in education. He’s made some efforts towards a rudimentary welfare state. So, he is, kind of, a reformer in that sense. And when he first came to power, though I hoped that he wouldn’t simply be a reformer in those sorts of senses, but he would be a political reformer, would continue on the reforms that began in 1998 after the fall of the military regime—As it turns out, he has not moved things any way in terms of political reform. So one of the big things that happened in the election was there was a significant push towards what they call “golput,” which is the “white ones” and it means people who are either not going to vote or they’re just going to hand in a blank ballot.

And so, there’s a lot of conversation about whether or not to boycott the elections. That was different two to five years ago and it opened all sorts of conversations about the state of Indonesia particularly on the, sort of, liberal and progressive side of politics. So, the short answer is, a technocrat is a pretty good description of him. The other thing to be said about him, as I said earlier, he’s constantly trying to, sort of, bring opponents into his tent. These are people who have a lot of power behind them, so he’s trying to bring other people in the elite behind him, including a lot of people who are well-entrenched in the old Suharto-era network. If we’re going to be unkind to him, he’s a bit of an opportunist. You saw that in the way that at the last election, he did make some overtures about human rights. For instance, he visited the family of the disappeared poet, Wiji Thukul. And so, a lot of people had high hopes for him in 2014. Those people didn’t have high hopes for him this time around because of his record.

GREG WILPERT Now finally, Indonesia’s left was not able to win any seats in this new legislature. Now, why is the Indonesian left still so weak 54 years since the 1965 mass murder of communists and other leftists in Indonesia?

DR. STEVE MILLER Well, I guess there’s a series of reasons. It’s part of an international trend. So, the left is significantly weaker than it was 40-50 years ago in most countries. Even if, you know, there’s something of a recovery in the US, but if I think back to my own home country in the 1970s, 50 percent of people were in unions. Now, it’s 20 percent. So, I think there is an international trend going on. After the Communist Party was smashed, people on the right [inaudible] called communist, to seek to repress and marginalize and discredit any kind of progressive politics, so that label is constantly being wheeled out and used as justification. Nowadays, for things like if there’s a meeting or conference discussing something progressive, at various times, right-wing thugs will turn up and will try to break that event up. Not consistently and not always successfully, but that definitely happens with a certain nod and a wink from some of the state apparatus.

Then, I’d also say that part of the reason is, one more reason has to do with the failures of the reform movement, the reformasi movement of the 1990s, which never really cohered itself into a clear, organized force. To a certain extent, you could draw that back to 65′ as well because it was a movement of very young, inexperienced people that probably had higher hopes then and were realistic and tended to think victory was just around the corner, rather than there at the beginning of a process of building that could take many years. I’m hoping that’s some sort of answer, yeah, so that issue of nothing coherent and of significant size organizationally coming out of the movement that overthrows the regime is key, I think, as well.

GREG WILPERT Well, we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Steve Miller, visiting lecturer of Gadjah Mada University in Jakarta, Indonesia. Thanks again, Steve, for having joined us today.

DR. STEVE MILLER Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.