Why Prabowo is the president Indonesia needs today

Indra A. P.
'Prabowo is no angel, but he is the lesser of two evils. Jokowi's approach will work only once our democracy has matured.'

Prabowo Subianto is the leader Indonesia needs today. Yes, he may have come from the old order and he does have questionable human rights records, but only he can offer this nation the stability and direction that it needs. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a man of the people and, yes, he is approachable, but if we are to draw a lesson from the past 10 years, approachable leadership alone does not solve this nation’s problem. A president who listens will only get so far before the tough time of policy making and implementation comes. Jokowi is not the president Indonesia needs today.

Anti-corruption statistics

Focus on the statistics and ignore the myths. The only Indonesian political party whose members have never been implicated in – let alone convicted – for bribery or graft is Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). Being implicated in corruption alone is a sacking offense in Gerindra, while other parties wait for a formal indictment or even conviction before disciplining its members (Look at how the ruling Democratic Party waited to discipline members involved in a massive graft case involving the IDR2.5 trillion Hambalang sports complex construction).

No Gerindra lawmaker has also taken part in the parliament’s controversially expensive, taxpayer-funded foreign study trips because Prabowo prohibits it. And a recent Transparency International survey points out that Gerindra’s party finances are the most transparent, accountable and clean. This shows that Prabowo has a tight grip on the party his political machinery. But more importantly, Prabowo will not hesitate to axe one of his own if he proves corrupt or incompetent. After all, he is not beholden to any vested internal interest. 

Strong leadership

Strong control and iron-fist style leadership is what this nation needs. We are a young democracy and our institutions are not yet mature. The grassroots have no meaningful mechanism to hold accountable the underperforming, overpaid clowns and crooks that sit in the parliament bar waiting for the next election. In the absence of this engagement, we need a strong top-down leadership to keep the elected in line and our public officials performing. So far, only Prabowo has shown that capacity.

It is perhaps a sweeping generalization, but the next president must lead by conviction, not consensus. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tried to build a cabinet of consensus, but despite his best efforts, it is clear that such leadership cannot produce the long-term vision that this nation needs. Case in point: we have no roadmap for our mineral resources and oil and gas industries. Incoherence in our regional autonomy and mining laws have landed the nation in a US$2 billion lawsuit in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal. Infrastructure development grinds to a halt because of regulatory overlaps, since lawmakers and regulators are driven by their own short-term agenda.

Indonesia today needs a streamlined and unified leadership. The next president must lead by conviction. Not consensus.  

Jokowi may seem approachable. But a friendly face and sympathetic ears alone do not solve this nation’s problem. He needs to operate independently of his party leadership but lacks the means to do so. He has no solid political machinery of his own to counterbalance his party’s chair, Megawati Soekarnoputri (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle or PDI-P). This means he would need her blessings to pursue his own agenda. I am not comfortable with Megawati or PDI-P because of their track record. In the 3 or so years Megawati was in power, we lost two islands, privatized our state-owned enterprises, sold our national assets at undervalued prices. We also inherited from her administration unworkable labor and regional autonomy laws. In short, her leadership was a mess. 

Neither has Jokowi shown that he would or could stand up to Megawati. When declaring his candidacy in March, Jokowi publicly said he had secured Megawati’s blessing. Securing blessings? A president leads his party not follow it. A president is in charge of his own political destiny, not serve at the pleasure of others. I do not agree that he serves his party or has to conform to its structure; it is too convenient. The more appropriate description is that he follows his party because he is unable to steer it in the direction he wants. Fact: he could not even channel donors’ moneys to his own cause. He needed his party’s approval even for this. In turn, PDI-P will dictate what Jokowi can and cannot do. He will be a crowd-pleaser, no more than a pawn in the political chessboard, a face to present to the public to paper and smooth his party’s policy.   

Economic Policy 

Prabowo’s idea on the economy, led by agriculture strengthening, sounds dull but it is realistic. The average laborer spends between 30% – 50% of his income on food and board. Food price rise erodes living standards, negating wage increases. The upward spiral of price raise and wage raise will eventually erode our competitiveness, thus undermining the fundamentals of our economy. We need to stabilize food prices if we are to prosper as a nation, not just book impressive GDP growth. Yes Jokowi’s plan to empower street peddlers sounds appealing, but street peddlers need affordable produce to work with and eat.

Prabowo’s plan to plug leaks in the state budget is equally accurate. Indonesia needs to staff its government with the cleanest, most competent individuals. It can only do so it if pays its officials a competitive wage. The government also needs to spend on economically beneficial but financially unsound infrastructure. Public-private partnership infrastructure initiatives are excellent but cannot be relied on for financially unattractive projects. In the absence of private sector interest, the government must spend its own money to fill the gap. Jokowi, on the other hand, talks loudly on both but has not detailed how he will raise the extra cash to top up Indonesia’s pressured budget. 

Jokowi’s original ideas while serving as Jakarta governor paints a man removed from reality. He plans to raise property base prices indiscriminately, supposedly to bolster public finances. This is good in theory except for three points: (1) the rise applies to all property types, thus disproportionately affecting first-time home owners (the aspiring, young middle class that sustains Jakarta’s economy) and pensioners (the ones whose sweat and toil built the city), and poor tenants (who will inevitably pay higher rents); (2) Jakarta has accumulated unspent reserves equivalent to 40% of its annual budget and it is growing (why tax more when you can’t even spend what you have?); and (3) to cushion against excessive harshness, he will provide an appeal procedure. But this means hard-hit appellants must navigate the bureaucratic maze. The bureaucracy, however, is not known for its cleanliness, transparency or efficiency. Clearly, Jokowi cannot appreciate the finer points of policy. 

Human rights 

With regard to allegations of human rights abuse allegations, Prabowo has never been formally indicted or charged, here or abroad. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume he committed it. He was a soldier and a soldier follows orders, written or spoken. He may have been dismissed for unsanctioned acts, but this reflects systematic failure within the military leadership more than his own failings. The very generals that dismissed him must also account for what happened in East Timor and in 1998, starting from the chief of staff at the time. At any rate, playing the blame game will not heal the nation. A politics of reconciliation is the way forward. Prabowo has taken steps towards that. His superior should do the same.

Business interests

Prabowo does have business interests, however there is no question that his wealth was legally gotten. Strong finance is a necessity in the politics of Indonesia today – another Megawati legacy. Prabowo’s financial capacity enables him to fund his own campaign. In turn he would need not answer to any paymasters once elected. Can Jokowi do the same? Unlikely.

Prabowo is no angel. But he is the lesser of two evils. His character, source of finance, and political machinery allow for a strong presidency and unified leadership. Jokowi, by contrast, is a consensus seeker. His approach will work only once our democracy has matured, our institutions are strong, and the gap between the rich and the poor has diminished.

Indra A. P.  is a graduate of the University of Warwick (LLB Hons.), UK, and the University of Pelita Harapan (SH), Indonesia. He currently works at a Jakarta-based law firm, specializing in infrastructure works and foreign investment.

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