Do you remember the smear campaign against Barack Obama when he ran for the presidency? The claim that he was Kenyan, not American? That he was a Muslim? That he was a communist? As one comedian summed up: “A Communist, a Muslim and an illegal alien went into a bar. And the barkeeper said, ‘What will it be Mr Obama?”
So the presidential election campaign in Indonesia had a familiar tone as the frontrunner, Joko Widodo, known universally by his nickname Jokowi, was attacked by his enemies.
Jokowi’s purported marriage certificate appeared, showing he was ethnic Chinese, his father born in Singapore.
That’d be a big enough political liability in a country where many hold old grudges against the tiny Chinese minority.
But worse yet, the man running to lead the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country was accused of being a closet Christian.
Jokowi started the election campaign with an apparently unassailable lead over his only rival, Prabowo Subianto, of between 20 and 40 percentage points.
But the false claims exposed his lead to be eminently assailable. By the end of the campaign, Jokowi had lost his advantage and clung to a lead of 5 per cent or less.
In the final days of the campaign, Jokowi made a lightning pilgrimage to Mecca to reassure voters.
Was the closely parallel smear campaign coincidence? No. Among Prabowo’s campaign advisers is an American, Rob Allyn. He worked with the George W. Bush campaign for the governorship of Texas and later for the presidency.
Allyn is the man credited with some attack campaigns in US politics and introducing modern negative campaigning to Mexico’s presidential elections.
“Clearly Jokowi didn’t do enough to counter this,” says Marcus Mietzner, an expert on Indonesian politics and an associate professor at ANU.
Mietzner says he discussed the reasons with Jokowi’s campaign advisers: “He allowed himself to get caught up with the image he’d built of himself as a clean, non-conventional politician – ‘if I do this, I’m just like everyone else.’
“If he’d run strongly against Prabowo he could have won by 10 or 15 per cent.”
These claims about Jokowi were all false. But the most troubling accusations against Prabowo, a former general, are true.
In the campaign’s very last gasp, Jokowi’s campaign did finally turn the attack. Jokowi’s running mate, Yusuf Kalla, used a televised debate to accuse Prabowo’s coalition of entrenched corruption. Referring to structural corruption in key industries, he posed:
“Since there is no oil mafia, beef mafia, rice mafia, sugar mafia, no Haj mafia nor forestry mafia on our side, the question is to whom was your speech about kleptocracy addressed to?”
Replied Prabowo: “I’m not saying there are no thieves in my party.”
His father-in-law, the former dictator Suharto, installed him as the head of Indonesia’s Special Forces, Kopassus. Suharto used the unit as a political problem-solving force that suppressed efforts to democratise.
Prabowo committed serious breaches of human rights in the process.
The former head of the armed forces, Wiranto, has said that he sacked Prabowo because in 1998 he had kidnapped and tortured democracy activists, 13 of whom remain unaccounted for. There is plenty of evidence that this is true.
Suharto’s successor as president, B.J. Habibie, has accused him of trying to seize power in a coup.
“Think of a place like Putin’s Russia,” says Ed Aspinall of the ANU, “and we might have a picture of what Prabowo’s Indonesia will eventually look like.”
Prabowo doesn’t deny an authoritarian tendency. In fact, his election platform was built on one. He campaigned to do away with Indonesia’s current constitution and to revert to the 1945 version. This was the basis for the dictatorships of Sukarno and Suharto, centralising power in the palace.
He has said that democracy is unsuited to Indonesian culture, and he told a gathering of military officers that democracy “exhausts us.”
Prabowo strikes a dictator’s pose, parading on one of his stable of Arabian thoroughbreds as he inspects his private militia, revelling in the role of strongman.
Far from being a liability, however, the decisive big-man routine is Prabowo’s greatest asset. With an aristocratic bloodline and a martial past, he is the polar opposite of Jokowi, a self-made everyman, furniture entrepreneur and provincial problem-solver. It’s the feudal leader versus the can-do manager.
In the event, Barack Obama refuted the accusations against him and they weren’t enough to keep him from office. In Indonesia’s July 9 ballot, the disinformation campaign against Jokowi wasn’t enough to defeat him, either.
The official vote count is not due until July 22. But the most credible Quick Counts, vote-sampling counts conducted by private polling groups on election day, give the election to Jokowi. Some give Prabowo victory.
But, says Mietzner: “All the Quick Counts that we’ve followed since democratisation started in Indonesia, the ones that have always been right, all agree that Jokowi won.”
If the official count confirms this, Prabowo’s reaction will be key. Will he accept the people’s verdict in good grace? There is no certainty.
The deputy chair of his party, Fadli Zon, has said that voting for Jokowi could lead to the situation that the former Philippine president, Joseph Estrada, confronted.
Estrada was democratically elected but forced from office by a “people’s power” movement and the threat of impeachment. Prabowo’s camp, evidently, has been thinking about whether democracy might prove just as exhausting for Jokowi – even if he wins.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor. Sydney Morning Herald