Jakarta. Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto has indicated that, if elected, he would begin the process of winding back the electoral system in favor of a “consultative” approach he says is more in keeping with Indonesian cultural traditions.
Speaking at a “Cultural Dialog with Presidential Candidates” event at Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki on Saturday, Prabowo began by saying that Indonesians had a tendency to be overly influenced by Western ideas such as democracy.
“Consciously or not, our elites were all Western-educated — Bung Karno, Bung Hatta, Bung Sjahrir, and including myself. We’re products of the West,” Prabowo said, rhetorically placing himself among the founders of the modern Indonesian state.
As such, said Prabowo, elites presume that Western ideas such as one man, one vote and direct elections for provincial and national leaders are the best on offer.
“Even though they’re not appropriate for us. Like direct elections — we’ve already gone down that path. But it’s like someone addicted to smoking; if we ask them to stop, the process will be difficult,” Prabowo said.
“I believe much of our current political and economic systems go against our nation’s fundamental philosophy, laws and traditions, and against the 1945 Constitution,” he said.
“Many of these ideas that we have applied are disadvantageous to us, they do not suit our culture,” Prabowo said.
Ikrar Nusa Bakti, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that Prabowo’s remarks raised a sinister question.
“Is he going to change our system if elected? What does he mean by saying that free elections do not suit us?” Ikrar said. “His behavior worries me.”
On Saturday Prabowo returned to a phrase he has often used during campaign speeches around the country — “a return to the 1945 Constitution” — but it is a slogan which few ordinary Indonesians really understand. The Constitution, unamended, concentrates authority in the position of the president.
Article 37 of the Indonesian constitution allows the Constitution to be amended by approval of two-thirds of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). This avenue was used to introduce checks and balances against sweeping presidential power during the reform period beginning in 1998, and it is those which Prabowo apparently intends to remove.
Prabowo said that in order to move away again from direct elections, what would be required is a “consensus of the political elite,” which would include cultural, religious and labor leaders.
Arbi Sanit, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia, said that, “If Prabowo is elected, that shows he has the popular backing for such a change.”
On the other hand, such a change would seem a far stretch from what Indonesia is today. The country has successfully positioned itself as the most democratic nation in South East Asia. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index published in 2012 showed that Indonesia, overall, fared better than its neighbors in holding free and fair national elections as well as in ensuring the security of voters and civil liberties.
Prabowo’s remarks were made in the wake of a recent disclosure by American journalist, Allan Nairn, of quotes from his off-the-record interview with Prabowo conducted in Jakarta in June and July 2001. Nairn recounted that Prabowo “ranted about Gus Dur and democracy,” saying that “Indonesia is not ready for democracy,” because “we still have cannibals, there are violent mobs.”
Nairn also wrote that Prabowo is looking to establish an “authoritarian regime” in Indonesia.
“Going back to pre-98 is not a solution to the country’s problems,” Aleksius Jemadu, political analyst from Pelita Harapan University, said, referring to the authoritarian New Order era.
“Are we going back to square one?” he said. “I think today we are already at a point of no return, he cannot use a strongman approach, look at the dispersion of power today, there are many parties. He cannot do that.”
Siti Zuhro, a political researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), was equally critical of Prabowo’s regressive rhetoric.
“If he is going to turn back time on our democratic system, that is not how it should be,” she said.
“There should have been a social contract for him to pledge to defend this system that we have tried so hard to establish for 16 years,” she added.
Arbi was more scathing in his criticism of Prabowo’s anti-democratic remarks.
“Someone who is anti-democratic like him is not fit to lead Indonesia,” Arbi Sanit said.
“It is open now. He has a bad track record on democracy. Now he also has negative thoughts about democracy,” Arbi said.
“The world has embraced democracy. Indonesia is also better off for it. Indonesia is democratic now, but [Prabowo] does not approve,” he said.
Arbi added that without a democratic system of governance, there is no assurance of human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
“We need democracy, but a democracy where there is the strength of the majority and one that is supervised by opposition. That will ensure our nation’s stability,” Arbi said.
Ikrar Nusa Bakti said that Prabowo’s anti-democratic remarks showed “his true self.”
“He does not believe in democracy, but he wants to be elected through democratic means, this is the laughable part,” Ikrar said.
“He does not believe in democracy. That was why he kidnapped pro-democracy activists in the past,” Ikrar said.
Earlier in May, 41-year-old Mugiyanto, a pro-democracy activist during the 1998 reform struggle, told the AFP about his three-day long interrogation and detainment at the hands of Prabowo’s special forces.
“The most painful part was when I heard my friend being tortured,” Mugiyanto told the AFP.
More recently on June 19, Prabowo responded to requests by Reuters to interview him by warning that they “may not challenge him on his human rights record.”
Experts on Indonesian politics, Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner from the Australian National University remarked that Prabowo’s blatant disrespect of democracy and free elections was worrying and echoed the rise of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century.
“It is very rare in the modern world for would-be autocrats to openly state that they want to destroy the electoral system through which they seek to achieve power,” the political analysts said on an Australian National University official website.
“They mostly mask such intentions before they are elected. We probably need to go back to the fascist movement of 1930s Europe to find such explicitly authoritarian sentiments expressed by electoral movements that end up winning elections.”
‘Do not misinterpret Prabowo’
Viva Yoga Mauladi, Prabowo’s campaign spokesperson, said that Prabowo’s comments have been misinterpreted.
Viva said that what Prabowo referred to in his speech at Taman Ismail Marzuki was the “excess of democracy.”
“Excess meaning the negative impacts of direct elections. For example, things that undermine democracy itself, such as money politics and the lowering of social cohesiveness,” Viva said. “That is what Prabowo really means. So do not misinterpret Prabowo as anti-democratic and intolerant."
With respect to Allan Nairn’s quoting of Prabowo’s comments in 2001, Viva questioned the journalist’s credibility.
“I don’t know about Allan Nairn, what sort of journalist is he? What does he represent, the Washington Post? It is not clear at all,” he said with a laugh.
“Prabowo is very committed to Indonesia’s democratic progress,” Viva said.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed the reform period as starting in 1988. It is 1998.