Jakarta. On one side is a former general accused of grave human rights abuses; on the other is a humble former furniture salesman whose meteoric rise as governor of Jakarta has captivated the nation. This is the narrative of the 2014 Indonesian presidential election.
Both Indonesia and Europe undergo the process of electing new representatives this year, with Europeans having gone to the polls last week to elect members of the European Parliament. The EU and Indonesia are important trading partners, and whoever captures the presidential palace in July will command attention in Europe, which is seeking to bolster trade with Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Political narratives are never as simple as they seem, but they tend to be simplified when exported to foreign shores.
On the Great Indonesia Movement Party’s (Gerindra) ticket, presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto has been widely criticized for his alleged crimes in the 1998 Jakarta riots and in his campaigns as an Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) commander in East Timor.
However, he is has attempted to reinvent himself as a strong, pro-business leader who will bring investment and development to Indonesia. His vice presidential candidate, former coordinating minister of economic affairs Hatta Rajasa, is seen as capable and respected despite his economically nationalistic tendencies.
Prabowo’s opponents, representing the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) ticket, have been the subject of far less controversy abroad.
Popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is lauded for his record and clean reputation, although he is relatively inexperienced in the complex world of Indonesian politics. His running mate and former vice president Jusuf Kalla brings credibility to the campaign with his business expertise and peacekeeping skills in the Aceh, Sulawesi and Maluku conflicts.
When it comes to political and economic collaboration, however, substance matters more than appearances.
In a bid to shore up their influence in Europe, both candidates have met with ambassadors of European Union member states in Jakarta in the past year. The meetings included discussion about political and economic collaboration on a variety of international issues — from Asean integration to bilateral trade agreements. In Joko’s case, the ambassadors expressed a willingness to partner with the governor in his projects for the capital.
Prabowo’s image abroad has been hampered by persistent claims that he committed atrocities as a Kopassus commander during three tours of duty in the late 1970s and early 1980s in East Timor, a province of Indonesia at the time.
According to Human Rights Watch and the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), Prabowo was involved in a massacre in the hamlet of Kraras on Sept. 17, 1983, that left more than 140 civilians dead.
He is also accused of orchestrating the government response to deadly 1998 riots in Jakarta that killed over a thousand people when he was the head of the Indonesian Army’s Strategic Reserve (Kostrad).
Prabowo has consistently defended his innocence, saying that neither the United Nations nor the East Timorese government have charged him with human rights violations in the Timor conflict. Despite his dismissal from the army in 1998, Prabowo was never formally investigated for his supposed wrongdoing during the riots.
His situation draws parallels to India’s Narendra Modi, whose suitability as prime minister in elections earlier this year was marred abroad by his apparent failure to stop riots in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the state’s chief minister. The riots left more than 1,000 civilians dead, the majority of whom were Muslims.
Modi and Prabowo are both ardent nationalists, the former associated with Hinduism and the latter with the ideal of a “Greater Indonesia.” Foreign powers, including the United States, who had imposed visa bans on both politicians for their alleged human rights abuses, have reconciled with Modi following his landslide election victory.
This is a promising sign for Prabowo should he be elected president.
Seeking to allay Western fears of economic nationalism if he wins the presidency, Prabowo’s policy platform calls for a mixed economy with limited privatization and trade liberalization, rejecting the nationalization of foreign assets.
Due to his father’s exile from Indonesia for clashing with Sukarno, he finished his high school years in London in the early 1960s, where he came to admire Western political and economic ideas.
Meanwhile, Joko has enjoyed basking in the glow of international media coverage that has romanticized his journey from furniture salesman to leading presidential candidate.
Like Prabowo, his ties to Europe also predate his political career. Prior to running for mayor of Solo in 2005, Joko made frequent trips to cities across the continent — which have inspired his successful mayoralties in Solo and more recently in Jakarta.
Joko has sought to implement signature features of European cities, such as advanced public transportation, wide sidewalks, parks, and an appreciation of cultural heritage, in the cities that he has governed. His efforts have been largely successful in Solo’s rebranding as a modern and developed tourist hub representing Java’s unique culture. Under his tenure as governor of Jakarta, he commenced construction of a mass rapid transit (MRT) rail system in the capital.
Joko’s reputation as a clean and respected outsider to the murky politics of the archipelago, combined with his effective leadership record, have won him numerous awards. He came third in the 2012 World Mayor Awards for his two-term administration of Solo, and was ranked 37th in Fortune’s list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders in 2014. With a spot as one of 2013’s global thinkers in Foreign Policy magazine, it is clear that Joko is widely regarded as a model president-in-waiting.
His choice of Kalla as his running mate provided a significant boost for those who doubted Joko’s abilities and preferred the political and economic expertise of the Prabowo-Hatta pair. Kalla studied at the prestigious Insead business school in Paris in the 1970s, going on to establish a business empire in his native Sulawesi spanning multiple industries. He has a long history of collaboration with former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, with whom he negotiated a peace deal with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005 that ended the Aceh conflict. His other successes include agreements that ended sectarian violence in Central Sulawesi in 2001 and in Maluku in 2002. This is in marked contrast to Prabowo’s reputation regarding conflicts in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s perplexing spectrum of democratic, nationalist and Islamic parties is little understood outside of the country. Gerindra is secular and nationalist, yet two of its allies, the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and the United Development Party (PPP), have been vocal in their persecution of the Ahmaddiyah Muslim minority while in local and national government. This does not bode well for Prabowo’s stated goal of greater religious tolerance and will not win him any backers overseas. Conversely, Joko’s PDI-P, itself a democratic nationalist party, has allied with the National Awakening Party (PKB), a religious party founded by the late former president and prominent religious tolerance advocate Abdurrahman Wahid, commonly known as Gus Dur.
Prabowo promises to bring about Indonesia’s greatness by implementing numerous reforms designed to create rapid economic growth. If he can put the ghosts of his past behind him, he will receive raucous support from investment-minded European leaders.
Joko will fight to establish a clean and efficient government free of corruption that will pursue ambitious social and economic reform to lift millions of citizens out of poverty. With his sparkling reputation, he has nothing to prove to foreign leaders, who will welcome him with open arms. In its recent history, democratic Indonesia has had more former mayors than generals lead nations.
The stage is set: it is now up to Indonesia to decide.