Indonesia needs justice, not hope

The real battles in Indonesia start tomorrow – after the election

Indonesia’s parliamentary election last April 9 was relatively peaceful and clean, which shows how far democratization has come in the last 15 years despite the deep psychological and structural damages wrought by Suharto. But as the just completed presidential campaign has shown, the process remains limited. (Check Rappler’s live blog for updates on the July presidential polls.)

The popular movement that overthrew Suharto was only seeking reformasi, not the revolusi demanded by Sukarno’s generation in the 1940s. The unfortunate result is that the general population continues to suffer under Suharto’s legacy of impunity for security forces, massive corruption and an economic model that caters only to the elite. The new democratic model is not empowering the masses, but rather, putting them at the service of an entrenched economic oligarchy. If Indonesia fails to change direction after today’s election, it is likely to become like my own country, the United States: a democracy in name only. 

By putting too much faith in the electoral process alone, Indonesia risks repeating its old pattern of “floating masses” (massa mengambang), with public participation but not public control. This arrangement might be suitable for the middle class, but it does not help the marginalized and poor. 

The rapid political rise of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is an example of this type of façade. His move from mayor to presidential hopeful in less than two years reminds me of how quickly Barack Obama went from state legislator to poster boy of the Democratic Party before even being elected to Congress, and becoming his party’s presidential candidate before completing his first term in the Senate. It makes you wonder who’s pulling the strings. 

Obama ran a campaign that was full of hope; hope that took root in the desperation felt by so many Americans. After two terms of George W. Bush, most were disgusted with what our country had become, with the government openly embracing torture and military aggression, and the economy in ruins because the poor could no longer afford to subsidize the Enrons and Halliburtons. 

Indonesians face a similar desperation, seeing the parties that claimed to have the answers turn out to be just as corrupt and indifferent as the New Order under Suharto. As in the United States, there are powerful reactionary elements entrenched in Indonesian society, which we see in Suharto’s daughter’s bid for parliament and the Mussolini-style militaristic imagery used in her ex-husband Prabowo’s campaign for the presidency. Understandably, this has scared many people into rallying behind Jokowi. 

Five years of Obama and the United States has a foreign policy marred by atrocities at Guantanamo Bay and anti-democratic intervention in Latin America, record numbers of deportations, a health care system that still enriches private corporations at the expense of public health, and ongoing impunity for big business and the banks that created the economic catastrophe. And rather than opening democratic space, those brave enough to speak out against the system languish in jail or exile like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. 

As a candidate, Obama positioned himself to the left of traditional politics. He had a background of community organizing, a record of opposing the invasion of Iraq, and he used language from popular struggles. Jokowi does not even have that. His background is merely that of a businessman, and the causes he embraces are safely within middle class interests like beautifying the city and tackling corruption. 

Deep divide

Indonesia’s new president faces serious challenges. The pursuit of economic growth is deepening the divide between rich and poor, and military reform seems like a distant memory, with soldiers still outside civilian law and Densus 88 freely committing extrajudicial killings. The instability has forced some issues to the fore that contain opportunities for structural change, like reexamining investment regulations and placing new controls on mining exports, but as the past 15 years have shown, such measures can be easily diverted to further enrich the wealthy. 

What Indonesia needs is not an Obama, but real changes in the way things operate. Unfortunately, neither of today’s presidential candidates seem likely to pursue the structural changes needed for justice to flourish. Prabowo should obviously be stopped. But is it enough to simply avoid electing a war criminal? 

So far, Jokowi’s achievements have been mainly cosmetic. It’s easier to relocate a few dozen street vendors than to stop the palm oil concessions causing massive relocations of farmers and wildlife. Making bureaucrats more responsive and accountable is a good step, but the task of bringing security forces and corporations under the rule of law will require much greater political will. While the Jokowi campaign has offered better policies overall than Prabowo, it is still short of a progressive agenda that threatens the status quo, but rather, at most, a slightly more responsive government and some opportunities for limited change. 

As the failures of the Obama administration demonstrate, the real battles start tomorrow after the election is over. If Prabowo wins, it will be a huge step backwards for Indonesia and Southeast Asia.  But even if Jokowi wins, Indonesians will still need to put consistent pressure on the new government to make sure it upholds the modest goals of reformasi, let alone makes a real break with the past. –

Andrew de Sousa (@atdesousa) works with Focus on the Global South in Bangkok. This was first published at the Jakarta Globe.