Suharto’s ghost stalks Indonesian election

Indonesia polls are a contest between two diametrically opposed views of the country’s troubled past.

Presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie has invoked the memory of Suharto on the campaign trial [AFP/Getty]

It’s election season in Indonesia, and colourful campaign posters fill city streets, alleyways, and countryside villages across the archipelago.

Many of the posters feature a face recognisable by nearly all Indonesians: that of former president and dictator General Suharto. When Indonesians go to the polls on April 9 to cast ballots for a new parliament, these posters encourage voters to choose with an eye to the past.

“Many Indonesians remember the Suharto era fondly because they remember it as a time of dynamism, optimism and progress,” said Tom Pepinsky, associate director of the Cornell University Modern Indonesia Project. “Of course, this is a selective memory, one that ignores the repression and authoritarianism of [Suharto’s] New Order regime.”

This is the fourth election held by the world’s most populous Muslim country and third-largest democracy since the fall of Suharto in 1998. Nevertheless, he still casts a long shadow over a country that, despite immense progress, has yet to fully integrate democratic ideals.

Return of the ‘New Order’

Suharto came to power amid the bloody repression of the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1965-66 and the impeachment of Indonesia’s founding leader, Sukarno, in 1967. The history of that time, in which an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Indonesians were killed by anti-Communist paramilitaries, is still officially a taboo topic in the country. Suharto remained in power for more than 30 years, a period he referred to as the “New Order”.

Today, Suharto’s political party, Golkar, and its presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie want people to remember the years after the killings, in which Indonesia experienced stable, strong growth driven by exports of natural gas, timber and rare metals.

There is still nostalgia among older Indonesians for a less chaotic time. Suharto was all they knew and, to his credit, he held the country together through some difficult challenges.

by - Gregory Poling, Center for Strategic and International Studies

As long as the growth continued, Indonesians tolerated dictatorship. But suddenly, in 1997, the system collapsed. The Asian financial crisis, raging wildfires, and a drop in global prices for natural resources caused Indonesia’s economy to shrink by a staggering 13.7 percent in that year alone. Massive student protests, ethnic violence, and food and gas shortages forced Suharto, a longtime ally of the United States, to resign in May 1998.

The caretaker president, B J Habibie, introduced democratic institutions and decentralised authority away from Jakarta, the capital, to the provinces. Nevertheless, much remained unchanged. Suharto’s associates stayed in positions of power throughout the government. The army and paramilitary organisations maintained a privileged status in society.

Suharto’s family wealth, estimated by Transparency International in 2004 to be between $15bn and $35bn, and its control of business and industry, was untouched.

Post-Suharto democracy

Golkar ruled during Suharto’s New Order period, winning rigged elections with between 60-75 percent of the vote. After Suharto’s downfall in 1998, the party reformed – and remained surprisingly strong during Indonesia’s democratic transition. It has been one of the biggest parties in parliament and, under outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a member of the ruling coalition.

Part of that success was due to the party’s deliberate strategy of distancing itself from Suharto. But today, Golkar has made a 180-degree shift in its campaigning. His face is, again, everywhere. The Suharto featured on the posters of Golkar’s parliamentary candidates isn’t the powerful general of 1965, but the elder statesmen, whose puffy white hair, grandfatherly smile, and casual batik shirts give him the confident air of a Nelson Mandela. (In fact, the South African leader’s trademark colourful shirts were gifts from Suharto himself.) The message is clear – in the face of rampant corruption, instability, and inflation, Indonesia needs a strong leader with a proven record: another Suharto.

“Suharto’s name got dragged in the dirt early on, but he is more acceptable now,” said Gregory Poling of the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing Indonesians’ impatience with incessant news of corruption and scandals as one reason for the change. “Golkar is banking on Suharto’s legacy. There is still nostalgia among older Indonesians for a less chaotic time. Suharto was all they knew and, to his credit, he held the country together through some difficult challenges.”

Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar’s leader, is openly citing Suharto in his campaign stops. While acknowledging some benefits of democracy, he is quick to blame the current economic slowdown on short-term electoral politics, which he says result in a lack of effective long-term planning. Bakrie also argues that the way to counter crime and protests is to give police the right to use firearms and not get caught up in concerns with “human rights” when facing instability.

“Indonesia progressed rapidly in the years immediately following the fall of Suharto in terms of building and strengthening democratic institutions – enormous progress,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based independent consultant and former Indonesia country director for the New Democracy Institute. “However, it is widely acknowledged that the momentum has stalled in the past 10 years, and there is talk of rolling back some of the reforms. Many Indonesians are calling for ‘Reformasi 2.0’.”

The past and future rival? 

Bakrie is facing strong competition from a politician of a very different flavour: the anti-corruption, social-media savvy, hard-working governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – who recently announced that he would be running for president in polls scheduled for July.

“Seeing what he achieved as a mayor of Surakarta and what he wishes to achieve for Jakarta, he can be the type of president who will make positive changes for Indonesia,” said Putri, a young Indonesian planning to vote for the first time this election.

101 East – Indonesia’s Rock Governor

“People want leaders with empathy, who understand their problems,” said Leonard Sebastian, coordinator of the Indonesia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, discussing Jokowi’s rise.

Just two years ago, Jokowi was the mayor of Surakarta, a medium-sized city in central Java, where his dramatic record of fighting corruption captivated the nation. He was nominated by the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and beat an entrenched incumbent to become governor of the capital.

“What is different is his style; a new kind of politician, not beholden to traditional power. He is almost a Western-style politician, viewed as squeaky-clean,” said Poling, adding that Jokowi stands to benefit from a huge influx of newly eligible, young voters looking for change.

As a presidential candidate with little experience, Jokowi is often likened to US President, and former Jakarta resident, Barack Obama. Already, Jokowi is leading in the polls, well ahead of old-guard candidates Bakrie and one-time frontrunner Prabowo Subianto.

Yet even Jokowi, for all his freshness, has ties to the past. He was chosen to run for governor of Jakarta by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the PDI-P and daughter of the other strongman in Indonesia’s modern history, President Sukarno. “Jokowi is a populist leader, and this resonates well with Sukarno’s populist image that PDI-P has sought to capture, with only limited success,” said Pepinsky. “We will have to wait to see how durable the Jokowi effect is.”

As Bakrie calls on the ghost of Suharto, Jokowi is rekindling the idealist Sukarno of the independence era, when many saw Indonesia as having a bright future – while, at the same time, blazing his own identity. “[Jokowi] uses rhetoric that is reminiscent of Sukarno, but tends to govern differently,” said Rowland. “He is comfortable with the pro-poor rhetoric and operates within low-income communities with ease.”

Whoever becomes Indonesia’s next president – whether it is Bakrie, Jokowi, Probowo, or another candidate – his or her administration will work under the same shadow that has dominated Indonesia since 1965. Suharto may have fallen 16 years ago, but his legacy remains powerful.

Source: Al Jazeera