Indonesian Politics: Where's the Party?

It's been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart party Gerindra, defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots from the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has its roots in the Suharto's New Order era.. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin - a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.

For sure the incumbent "Foke", who is perceived to have achieved precious little during his tenure, basically shot himself in the foot with a series of highly publicized political gaffes. However, the election outcome marks something of a sea change in Indonesian democracy. Evidently Indonesians are voting according to their assessment of political performance rather than simply following party lines. Political parties now have to be much more careful about their image and what they actually stand for, rather than just relying upon the simple dynastic power and money alliances of the past.

But political parties per se are obviously not to be discounted yet.

A case in point: shortly after the fast count clearly indicated a Jokowi-Ahok victory, ex-General Prabowo Subianto, a major player in the Gerindra party, boasted unabashedly that Jokowi and Ahok owed their victory to him - with little mention of his political ally, PDI-P, in a projected coalition for the 2014 presidential elections

Though everyone knows that Prabowo brought Ahok, a disillusioned Golkar member of parliament passed over by his own party, into the race, this bragging rankled the PDI-P rank and file. PDI-P stalwarts are miffed because their iconic leader, Megawati, got so little mileage out of the gubernatorial elections. PDI-P grumbling has in turn alarmed the Gerindra leaders who are painfully aware that they need PDI-P's support to achieve the 20% of the seats in parliament currently required to field a presidential candidate. For the time being, it looks like the projected coalition will not happen.

Prabowo is controversial at best. He has the dubious honor of being the first person to be denied entry into the United States under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (There is a dark irony here, after all Prabowo trained in counter terrorism at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg). The ex-son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo was commander of the Kopassus special forces, and though ostensibly cleared by a military court of his human rights abuses during the New Order, he was still discharged from the army. Although his actions have been excused by some as "necessary to keep the nation united", many still insist he was behind the brutal political 'disappearances' and torture of opposition activists in the days leading up to Suharto's downfall

Prabowo has been back from self-imposed exile in Jordan for several years now, and has been staging something of a political comeback. He has his crosshairs firmly sighted on the Presidency in 2014. Though some may perceive him as the man with the guts required to clean up the rot and corruption in Indonesian politics, the still-warm memory of his cold-blooded transgressions is further stirred up by his braggadocio. Forgiving might be a virtue, but forgetting is stupid. And Indonesians are really not that stupid.

The renewed arrogance of this moneyed son of the elite may well have cost him not only the support of PDI-P - so much so that they will probably prefer to announce two-time loser Megawati yet again as their candidate - but possibly his own party's eligibility to field a candidate at all. Gerindra recently announced the cancellation of their national convention later this month - during which it was supposed to have announced Prabowo's candidacy.

Aside from the PDI-P his next best bet would be outgoing President Yudoyono's Democratic Party, itself a breakaway from PDI-P. However that seems a long shot given that the President has been urging the party to look to it's own younger cadres for regeneration.

Meanwhile Gerindra has filed a judicial review of the 2008 Presidential Election Law, which sets the 20% parliamentary threshold, on grounds of it being unconstitutional. But some soul searching must surely be going on within party ranks as to whether this wild-card retired general is an ace or a liability. His popularity might be on the rise (surveys in September by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting indicate 19.1% would vote for him over Megawati's10.1%), but he still needs to get his party to the polls first.

Though many individual Indonesian voters, eager to get the country back on track, may see his decisiveness as their best bet amongst a field of questionable candidates, and are therefore in a forgiving mode, Prabowo needs to remember that he needs the parties to forgive him as well. And as it is hard to forget his past, he probably needs to provide some truly convincing evidence of a change of heart before he gets another invite.