The Chinese Indonesians’ dilemma in electing president

Http://www.thejakar tapost.com/ news/2009/ 06/24/the- chinese-indonesi ans’-dilemma- electing- president. html

 

The Chinese Indonesians’ dilemma in electing president

Mario Rustan ,  BANDUNG   |  Wed, 06/24/2009 10:23 AM  |  Opinion

 

In the country’s first direct presidential election in 2004, the majority of Chinese-Indonesians knew who to choose for the president — the incumbent Megawati Soekarnoputri, because they wanted to thank for her great attention to this ethnic group. This year, however situation is totally different. Many of them are still undecided, like many other Indonesians.

A group of people share the same ethnicity, but there are still thousands of differences in political perspectives because of class, interests, knowledge, personal circumstance, religion, and others. The Chinese-Indonesians , on the other hand, like every other ethnic group in Indonesia share general attitude and behavior in politics.    

This article tries to give a sketch on how Chinese-Indonesians perceive the presidential candidates, and why.

Chinese-Indonesians experienced cultural and identity renaissance under the presidency of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid (1999-2001) and Megawati administrations (2001-2004). Often scorned and viewed negatively throughout Soeharto’s 32-year ruling and with its peak during the May 1998 riots, all of a sudden they felt appreciated and admitted, and were starting to explore and express their ethnicity.

The Pacific Rim, at the same time, was experiencing a boom of East Asian fashion, food, entertainment, and culture. Those commodities also flourished in Indonesia and were also enjoyed by non-Chinese Indonesians.     

At the same time, the specter of Islamist terrorism haunted Indonesia, while inter-religious conflict was taking place in Maluku and Central Sulawesi. Several Muslim vigilantes groups attacked Christian schools and places of worship. The post-9/11 atmosphere convinced many Chinese Christians that there was indeed a war taking place between Islam and Christianity.

The 2004 presidential election, therefore, became a dire situation. Megawati was seen as the only secular candidate that could promise security for the Chinese and other minorities. When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was gaining popularity and becoming a new favorite, stories emerged that he was supported by Islamic parties hardliner groups. The fear was strengthened when the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) supported SBY.    

Jusuf Kalla, SBY’s chosen vice president candidate, was pictured as a racist and an Islamist.

Therefore Megawati became the obvious choice, although a handful of Chinese also voted for SBY because of his image as an intellectual, modern, and Westernized firm leader.

Not long after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the presidency, Jusuf Kalla allegedly launched a negative statement concerning the Chinese Indonesians. Largely unknown in Indonesia, his comment for a while created an uproar among Asian-American activists.    

Under SBY’s administration, Indonesia was saturated with bad news of disasters, incompetency, and scandals. Poverty was rising, the parliament adopted Islamist-driven bills, and Chinese-Indonesians adopted a low-profile attitude again.    

Although Yudhoyono might be not a proponent of it, since his administration, assertive nationalism has become popular in Indonesia, as it is in several other countries like Russia, China, and Iran. Media, politicians, and public figures express contempt toward foreigners and foreign countries.

Chinese-Indonesians are not specifically targeted, and some even joining in when the perceived enemies are shared, such as America or Malaysia. But although Chinese-Indonesians hardly admit it, the nationalists openly condemn institutes closely related with Chinese-Indonesian lifestyles, such as malls, foreign franchises, and upmarket apartments and private schools.
 
Economic nationalism has become the biggest issue in this election. One of Kalla’s catchphrase is “being a mandiri (independent) nation”, which can be interpreted as self-sufficient, independent, and mature. His point, however, that Indonesia should limit foreign trade and should dare to say “no” to foreigners.

Megawati’s running mate, Prabowo, had been a populist from the start, condemning apartments, malls, and foreign trade on his party’s advertisements. Megawati and Kalla accused the SBY ticket as “neoliberalist” , in contrast to their “people’s economy”. On a lower pitch, Kalla and Wiranto portrayed their wives as devout Muslim women, and rumors appeared on the Internet that Boediono’s wife is actually a Catholic.

These issues, however, don’t turn many Chinese Indonesians to Yudhoyono. In public, many Chinese-Indonesians feel it’s safe (and even cool) to repeat what they have heard from the media, and the media often try to look critical and brave in criticizing the president.

On the other hand, Megawati is still popular as a secular leader, and Prabowo is the hardest-working candidate when it comes to approaching Chinese community leaders. The trick somehow worked since first, he isn’t identified as an Islamist and he could convince people that he is Chinese-friendly, although numerous worldwide news reports and academic papers link him to the May 1998 riots.

Jusuf Kalla is also active in approaching the Chinese community leaders, and even has won the endorsement of prominent figure Sofyan Wanandi, who insists that Kalla isn’t a racist.    

It is true that Yudhoyono would still be popular for many Chinese who don’t know and don’t care much for politics, but only wishing for security, safety, and order. But some of his lesser maneuvers did not really help his image. He also attempted some gestures which could be seen as appeasement to the Islamists, such as promising to rejuvenate the Islamic scout or quickly approving the Iranian election result.

This newspaper stated that there are only 1.5 million eligible Chinese voters out of 170 millions. That’s not even one percent. More than half of them live in Greater Jakarta, leaving less than one million thinly spread all across Indonesia.

In numbers, they are very insignificant and their votes are actually quite expendable. But in economics, international relations, and social affairs, they are indispensable.  

The writer graduated with honors from La Trobe University, Australia.

 

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Indonesia’s dark-horse candidate

http://www.atimes. com/atimes/ Southeast_ Asia/KC31Ae01. html

Mar 31, 2009

Indonesia’s dark-horse candidate
By Katherine Demopoulos

JAKARTA – Career soldier Prabowo Subianto is still a dark-horse candidate among the 38 different political parties jockeying for position ahead of next month’s legislative elections and a looming presidential race set for July.

A former son-in-law of dictator Suharto, and an alleged mastermind of the violence and abuses that attended East Timor’s break from Indonesia in 1999, he is running a decidedly slick and well-financed campaign that appears to have substantial grassroots resonance.

Although he is trailing incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and frontrunner Megawati Sukarnoputri in the polls, Prabowo and his political party’s numbers could be pivotal to the formation of the next ruling coalition. His Great Indonesia Movement party, or Gerindra, claims 11.2 million members.

The most recent polls forecast his party to win between 2.6% and 6.23% of the legislative vote, sufficient popular support to cross the 2.5% threshold needed for a party to assume legislative seats. Those figures could rise considering between 9% and 50% of polled voters say they are still undecided.

Political analysts say that if Gerindra wins 6-7% of the legislature, it will be a major player in the coalition building for presidential nominations. A party or coalition needs 20% of seats of parliament or 25% of the popular votes to put forward a presidential candidate.

Political analysts partially credit Prabowo’s and Gerindra’s early success to the financial resources of his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusomo, who last year was ranked by Globe Asia magazine as Indonesia’s 14th richest person with a net worth of just over US$1 billion.

He has helped to bankroll Prabowo’s prime time media barrage, depicting glossy panoramas of Indonesia, peopled with smiling children and hard-working farmers and fishermen. Market research firm Nielson estimates Gerindra has garnered more TV exposure than any other party by positioning its ads around Sikar, the country’s most popular soap opera and most viewed news bulletin.
His campaign has also been burnished by high-profile foreign advisors, including US political communications expert Rob Allyn, who worked for outgoing US president George W Bush‘s successful Texas governor campaign in 1994, and reportedly a German scriptwriter involved in various popular Indonesian soap operas.

“If you were a political actor in Indonesia, you’d have to be looking at him closely and paying attention. There might be a hidden agenda. It might be quite a legitimate tilt at the president or it might be a tilt for 2014, or getting something else he wants,” said Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at Australia’s Deakin University.

Rural sensitivity
By spending much of his campaign time in rural villages, Prabowo has shown a populist touch certain other top candidates have lacked. He has in particular courted farmers and fishermen, demographic groups which make up the majority of the rural population.

He has leveraged his position as chairman of the Indonesian Farmers’ Association, which claims 10 million members nationwide, to build up his grassroots credentials and has lobbied the agriculture ministry on matters of rural concern. He has also vowed to create 36 million new agricultural jobs and double the average per capita income from its current $2,000 to $4,000 per year.

“I haven’t seen any politician who has been so active and so persistent in approaching the farmers down to the village across the archipelago, ” said Aleksius Jemadu, professor at Pelita Harapan University, located on the outskirts of Jakarta.

“He is a military strategist and he has a long-term perspective and he knows what he can do to strengthen his popularity. He used to be known by the public as a general, but knows he has to change his image to [that of] an effective leader,” he added.

Gerindra spokesman Haryanto Taslam echoes that assessment. He said in an interview with Asia Times Online that during a recent village visit Prabowo bought up palm oil stocks – at above the market price – from farmers who had complained about falling prices.

He has also distributed fertilizer directly to farmers and tried to get cheaper rice seed than that on offer from a government-appointe d company, according to Haryanto.

In many ways, Haryanto is central to Prabowo’s image-conscious electoral strategy. As a former democracy activist, Haryanto was kidnapped and held for 40 days during the waning days of the Suharto regime. In his capacity as former Kopassus commander, Prabowo has since personally apologized to him for his detention, Haryanto says.

“The issue is not personal, but [it was] the system at that time,” he said. “Prabowo asked me to join him to fight together to fix Indonesia. And I wanted to join because my political attitude is parallel with Prabowo’s, wanting to give the best for Indonesian people. I think there is no problem working together with him.”

Prabowo has in the past admitted responsibility for kidnapping pro-democracy activists. Speaking recently to foreign journalists, Prabowo said of the government’s past political kidnapping policy: “Under one regime it is preventative detention, then there is regime change and it is called kidnapping.”

Controversial past
Such elliptical wordplay does little to assuage the activists who recall Prabowo’s controversial history. He stands most pointedly accused of organizing thugs who terrorized pro-independence figures in East Timor, as well as involvement in orchestrating the riots that targeted ethnic Chinese Indonesians in 1998.

In a fully embedded democracy, “a candidate like him would not stand a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Kingsbury. “Indonesia is on a reformist political and economic path and Prabowo represents the opposite of that.”

But for most of Indonesia’s rural poor, activists’ kidnappings and communal riots are a world away. Their hardships have not eased in the decade of democracy and among many there is nostalgia for Suharto’s strong leadership and policies that helped to uplift tens of millions out of poverty.

“Some people are harking back to the New Order. I think there has been some re-swinging of the pendulum,” said one Jakarta-based commentator, who requested anonymity. “My fear [of Prabowo’s candidacy] is a reversion to fascism.”

Prabowo’s campaign appeals to the masses through promises to reschedule foreign debt payments and put the cash into education and healthcare. He has also taken a nationalistic line in vowing to stop the sale of strategic state assets to foreigners and review perceived unfavorable existing government contracts.

“The message is so concrete, so real, so relevant with the situation of his audience, especially the farmers, the people at the grassroots … He provides a clear vision to solve all the real problems that they are facing in their everyday life,” added Pelita Harapan University’s Jemadu.

“He’s making some very basic appeals to popular nationalism and populist economics,” said Tim Lindsey at Melbourne University’s Asian Law Center. He warns that if some of Prabowo’s proposed policies were actually implemented, Indonesia would risk being cut off from international credit markets.

Some analysts fear that a Prabowo-led or influenced government could bid to turn back the clock on Indonesian democracy. Prabowo has said he wants to revert to the original form of Indonesia’s constitution, which gives strong powers to the executive and lacks checks and balances. Others, such as Lindsey, believe Indonesia has moved past Suharto’s and his former New Order regime’s legacy.

“The time for New Order leftovers is running out. In 2014, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll be seeing the same array of politicians. We’re witnessing a generational shift,” said Lindsey. “Young ones are not aware of Prabowo’s record, but it also works against them because the ideas they stand for resonate with fewer people. Rather than being the re-emergence of New Order politicians, perhaps this is their last hurrah.”

Katherine Demopoulos is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She works as a freelance reporter for the BBC and Guardian, and also writes extensively on Asian energy markets.

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