More and more concerns have arisen recently regarding the democratic future of Indonesia. In fact, some media have reported that an impeachment of president-elect Joko Widodo, who will assume office on 20 October 2014, could become a reality as opposition in parliament – led by controversial and vindictive former army general Prabowo Subianto – is large. The Merah-Putih coalition, referring to the coalition of political parties that supported Subianto in the presidential election (which he narrowly lost to Widodo) will control 353 of the 560 seats in parliament.
Subianto is a controversial figure in modern Indonesian history being an alleged human rights violator during his army days (1980s and 1990s) as well as important Suharto crony during the authoritarian and highly corrupted New Order regime (Subianto was married to Suharto’s second-oldest daughter). After the fall of Suharto in 1998 and Subianto’s discharge as Head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), possibly due to his involvement in the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in May 1998, he went into a voluntary exile in Jordan where he stayed for several years (and reportedly obtained citizenship status). When Subianto returned to Indonesia in the early 2000s – when the process of Reformasi (democratization) and decentralization was in full force – he saw that few had changed, really. The nation’s politics were still dominated by a small oligarchic elite, members of which had already been present during the last chapter of the New Order regime being either opponents or cronies of Suharto. But with Suharto having disappeared from the political arena, this small elite was now competing for the presidential seat and power in parliament.
In this context, Subianto was again able to rise through the ranks of national politics. Being a flawed democracy, political leaders in Indonesia do not emerge as a result of spending a (semi-) lifetime in political parties, debating in political societies from a young age (besides their pursuit of PhDs or Master degrees), thus rising through the ranks of political institutions (or universities) based on their political qualities, skills and intelligence (although obviously not all political leaders in democracies meet these criteria). Instead, to become a political leader in Indonesia, status, wealth, money-politics and nepotism are still the main ingredients for success. Fair and free elections every five years does not create a democracy when options given to the electorate are not the result of a democratic process. One of the keys to democracy lies in the minds of people; to think ‘horizontally’ (equality) instead of ‘vertically’ (hierarchic). This is problematic as Indonesian culture and tradition has resulted in a high degree of ‘hierarchical thinking’ in which the preference and will of the socially higher ranked person is most important (Bapakism, referring to the absolute need to obey and respect elders or superiors). Such thinking conflicts with ‘democratic thinking’ in which the will of the majority is decisive.
At 62 years of age, wealthy, being among the country’s elite, and having a strong character, Subianto is a true Bapak figure (‘Bapak‘ literally means father) who – despite being discredited in the past (after the fall of hís Bapak, Suharto) – can rely on respect and obeisance of people within his circles (Indonesians tend to forget quickly and therefore Subianto’s controversial past does not thwart his current social status). As such, he has been able to establish a large political force in Indonesia’s current political environment (through his political vehicle the Great Indonesia Movement, Indonesian Gerindra).
Subianto’s influence as a Bapak is mostly felt in the political circles of the country and less among the Indonesian people as a whole. This explains why he has been defeated in the July presidential election (although narrowly) and was only the third-largest party in April’s legislative election (securing 11.81 percent of the votes), thus becoming an opposition party. But within the high political ranks of the country he is currently the most influential Bapak and has been able to establish the Merah-Putihcoalition prior to the presidential election. This coalition, which put its full support behind Subianto in the election, includes the parties Gerindra, Golkar, United Development Party (PPP), National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Together these parties account for 353 of the 560 available seats in Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR), thereby being the majority in the House.
Contrary to initial expectation that this coalition would quickly fall apart after the defeat of Subianto in the presidential election, it stayed together (although within Golkar there is a fraction that prefers to follow former Golkar Chairman Jusuf Kalla, Widodo’s current running mate). In fact, the coalition has already flexed its muscles and is estimated to be able to cause serious damage to the effectiveness of president-elect Joko Widodo’s presidency. It is expected that the coalition – as an act of revenge for Subianto’s loss in the presidential election – will oppose most reform plans of Widodo for the sake of opposition only, thus coming at the expense of economic and social development of Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
The signs are already on the wall. First of all, the Merah-Putih coalition managed to win the battle for the posts of speaker of the new House and People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). Previously, these positions went to the largest political party. Based on the April legislative election, this should have been the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the party that backs Widodo. However, based on newly passed law, key posts such as speaker of the House, heads of commissions, the Budget Committee (Banggar), and the Legislative Body are decided by the majority of votes. In essence this is a democratic principle. However, as the Merah-Putih coalition is based on Bapakism, there is something ‘undemocratic going on’ in Indonesian politics and further paves the way for the influence of the Merah-Putih coalition, or more precisely, Subianto. Gerindra has now put forward its Deputy Chairman, Fadli Zon, to fill the post of Speaker of the House and Secretary General Ahmad Muzani as the Speaker of the MPR.
Secondly, the coalition was behind the successful passage of a new bill that abolishes direct elections in the regions, leaving it to regional legislatures to elect mayors, district heads and governors. Although this new bill had been proposed by the incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration several years ago, the coalition was happy to vote for approval of the law; a law which is regarded a step back for democracy.
It was therefore no surprize when Widodo announced last month that around half of his cabinet ministers would be technocrats instead of political party politicians (who are generally considered more corrupt). Previously, Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) stated that he would appoint mostly technocrats in his cabinet but apparently he had to scale back on this intention in an effort to gain more political support from political parties.
Surely, Subianto would also like to see that the position of president is not decided by direct elections but by appointment through the MPR as had been the case in the days of the New Order. Being the most powerful Bapak in Jakarta’s political circles today, that would sharply increase his chances of becoming president of Indonesia. ***