Tuesday, 5 March 2013

First glimpses of Indonesia’s presidential candidates

Despite both United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron and United States President Barack Obama each declaring Indonesia a success story for democracy, the South Asian archipelago nation still has a long way to go before it can truly loosen the shackles of its dictatorial past.

During 31 years of ruthless rule, the late President Suharto created a legacy in Indonesia still hotly debated around the world. The country experienced growth and industrialisation with dramatically improved healthcare and living standards.

In the 15 years since Suharto’s resignation has risen to regional ascendancy under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Yet the long road to democracy is frustrating many voters as the pace of reform slows and a growing culture of corruption undermines the credibility of Yudhoyono’s government.

Even now, the echo of an older, more distasteful era still sounds around two of the stronger presidential candidates set to run in next year’s election.
Prabowo Subianto - Courtesy www.mastererms-tunis.com

Both Aburizal Bakrie and Prabowo Subianto have close ties to the Suharto regime. Prabowo married Suharto’s daughter and served as a Special Forces soldier, while the Bakrie family amassed great wealth due to favourable economic policies introduced by the Suharto regime.

Moving in the correct social circles is enabling both presidential hopefuls to finance their own election campaigns. Their powerful positions have largely precluded political rivals with weaker connections, all but ensuring the two candidates will face each other in 2014.

But a third candidate, the Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, could leverage an escalating battle between Prabowo and Bakrie with around 20 percent of the vote if polls are accurate. Although without more support Widodo may not be able to run as smooth a campaign as his political rivals.

All elections exhibit a degree of unpredictability but even with 17 months until Indonesians head to the polls, these three front-runners are already emerging from the pack.

Infighting aside, Indonesian voters are justifiably concerned that Prabowo and Bakrie are currently their only real presidential options. With Yudhoyono barred from eligibility in the next race, and Widodo repeatedly voicing his ambivalence, neither family histories of Prabowo nor Bakrie have instilled much confidence in Indonesian voters.

The Bakrie family controlled a powerful oil venture widely blamed for an environmental disaster in East Java in 2006. 6000 people were killed when an eruption from a mud volcano devastated the area. A report by British, American, Indonesian, and Australian scientists released in 2008 confirmed suspicions that nearby oil and natural gas drilling by the venture probably caused the eruption.

On the other side of the partisan fence, Prabowo Subianto is an equally controversial figure. His business interests are less of a problem for Indonesian voters than his suspicious military career. Prabowo is constantly answering questions about his human-rights record and was the first person to be denied entry into the United States under the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Aburizal Bakrie - Courtesy www.antaranews.com
With a rising fierceness to the build-up before the 2014 elections, voter impatience with the progression of the democratic machine is high. Should the populist Jakarta governor Joko Widodo gain extra support and increase his popularity, translating into financial assistance, the contest for the Indonesian Presidency could become a three-horse race.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country and the world’s largest Muslim country. It sits across a key international trade route. With the United States naturally refocusing on the Pacific and Australia shouldering more security responsibility in the region, Indonesia is waking up to an important strategic position geographically.

Leaving the unlikely potential for the populist Joko Widodo to defeat two of Indonesia’s most powerful families, Indonesia’s next president will likely reflect its dictatorial past. Although the Indonesian public desire a faster development of democratic values, this will probably require a generational, rather than Presidential, change. Ballots can only achieve so much when the candidates wield enormous wealth to influence their election campaigns.

Yet whoever wins the 2014 elections, a certain amount of uncertainty will follow. Suharto’s legacy was despotic, no doubt, but his tenure was predictably pro-Western. It is not yet clear which way the next candidates will swing with their foreign policy. Personal and familial interests will likely feature in their decision making, but the country has a hefty weight in the region as the strongest economy in Southeast Asia.

Advanced South Pacific nations such as Australia and New Zealand will need to balance any immediate distaste for Indonesia’s next President with the reality of Indonesia as a country rich in energy resources and geopolitically active with a huge population of democratically aware citizens.

Indonesia’s next elections will be a colourful race. With so much to lose, the candidates will fight tooth and nail both at home and abroad. But if democratic reforms are not advanced, if corruption spreads further, and if the candidates pursue overly selfish objectives it could be the Indonesian people which ultimately bear the greatest cost.

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