Indonesia election: An 'impossible' country tests its hard-won democracy

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Student protesters at Trisakti University in May 1998Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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Students protests in 1998 brought down a dictator - but Indonesia's young democracy is on an edge again

By Jonathan Head

South East Asia correspondent

Budiman Sujatmiko has lost none of the passion that he used to show as one of the boldest student opponents of Suharto, the soft-spoken but ruthless dictator who ruled Indonesia for 32 years.

"In the 1990s our challenge was authoritarianism. We needed democracy. Today our challenge is inequality and backwardness," Budiman says in his campaign office, ahead of Indonesia's presidential race on 14 February.

In a scarcely believable twist, Budiman is now a spokesman for Prabowo Subianto - the frontrunner in the race, Suharto's son-in-law and the man who epitomises that authoritarian era. The former special forces commander has been accused of a string of human rights violations, and was sacked by the army in 1998.

"People change after 25 years, just like I have changed," Budiman says. "We have both moved to the middle."

It's a stunning turn of events. The once-disgraced military strongman and the fiery activist now find themselves on the same side in a democratic election. As unlikely as that alliance may seem, it helps tell the story of Indonesia's young, rowdy democracy.

As BBC correspondent in Jakarta in the late 1990s I reported on Budiman's courageous opposition to Suharto, and on his trial, where he delivered an hours-long, stinging rebuke of the government's repressive habits. I visited him in jail. I watched Prabowo manoeuvring in the power struggle that broke out amid the chaos of Suharto's last days, then being out-manoeuvred and cast out. I watched the euphoria of student protesters ousting a ruler who had dominated their lives and the lives of their parents. Those were heady days.

Yet today Indonesian politics is dominated by the same powerful, wealthy figures who prospered under Suharto.

Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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The violence that accompanied Suharto's fall from power led to predictions that Indonesia would break apart

Some have called Indonesia an impossible country. It shouldn't work, but it does - with its kaleidoscopic range of political parties representing one of the largest and most diverse populations on the planet. The 17,000 islands - and 700 languages - that make up the archipelago are spread over an area as large as the United States. It's a fast-growing economy, but with millions of its people still living in poverty.

Yet it has proved remarkably stable. Defying predictions that it would implode, like Yugoslavia, Indonesia has had just two directly elected presidents over a 20-year period, both of whom have been moderate, effective and popular, delivering steady economic growth.

What worries many Indonesians now, though, is what will happen to their democracy if Prabowo wins?

Foes to friends

From the campaign trail, Indonesia's democracy - the third largest in the world - appears to be in rude health.

Gone is the heated, sectarian divide of the last presidential contest in 2019, when President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, then seeking a second term, faced a determined rival in Prabowo who mobilised hard-line Muslim groups to contest the result. A week of rioting left at least 10 dead.

This time Prabowo, in his third attempt at the presidency, has teamed up with the still-popular Jokowi, who cannot run again. He has taken Jokowi's son as his running mate and stuck with his development-focussed policies. You will get more of the same, he is promising, and it seems to be working. The platforms of other two candidates, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, differ little in essentials.

The presidential debates have been largely calm and courteous. Rallies have been boisterous and full. Turnout on polling day will be high.

But Prabowo's dark past still looms - despite Jokowi's backing and a slick social media campaign that has transformed the image of the military hard man who dabbled with inflammatory populism into a cuddly grandfather figure.

"I want to ask Prabowo: 'Where is my son? If he's dead, tell me where his body is. If he's still alive, where is he?'" says Paian Siahaan.

His son, Ucok, disappeared in the last months of the Suharto regime in 1998. The unit Prabowo commanded was held responsible for the kidnapping of 23 activists. One died and 13 have never been found.

Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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Paian Siahaan has been waiting for 17 years to find out what happened to his son

Their families have gathered outside the presidential palace in Jakarta every Thursday for the past 17 years. Many are elderly. They want answers, and more than anyone else, they blame Prabowo.

Paian Siahaan, now 78 and a widower, makes the long journey every week from his home in Depok to join the protest. He showed me the back of his T-shirt, which read: "Bring back the disappeared. Don't let him rule the country."

"It is because he is a kidnapper," Paian says. That isn't the only accusation against Prabowo: an ambitious, intelligent and hot-tempered officer who, as Suharto's son-in-law, was a fast-rising star in the military.

He has also been accused of involvement in serious human rights abuses during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of Timor Leste. He had several tours of duty there, and was part of the military unit which killed the Timorese leader Nicolao Lobato at the end of 1978.

Many believe he was also responsible for instigating riots in Jakarta and other cities in May 1998, which targeted the ethnic Chinese minority, and ultimately forced Suharto to resign.

Prabowo has always denied involvement in that, arguing that he was a scapegoat. He has admitted only to ordering the kidnapping of the nine activists who survived.

Image source, Prabowo Subianto/FB

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Prabowo in East Timor in the late 1970s

But I recall a meeting with him in early 1998, when he was very angry with the Chinese business community, blaming them for the massive financial crisis which had engulfed Indonesia. He threatened to bring Muslim mobs onto the streets against them.

After Suharto stepped down, the army dismissed Prabowo over the kidnappings, and he spent more than a year living in exile in Jordan.

For Budiman, now Prabowo's spokesman, these are matters of the past, just like his own resistance. He now believes his energy should be channelled in a different direction.

"I am not idealistic. I am pragmatic but I am also ethical," he says. "I should not be limited to fighting for freedom and justice. I also believe in Indonesia's advancement."

This is from a man who spent 13 years in the country's top security prison, Cipinang. At his trial, he read aloud a manifesto for four hours, detailing the defects of Suharto's regime. "It is to the people that every power must be devoted, and it is from the people that power comes," he had declared.

You hear a fair amount of scorn for Budiman now. One of his former comrades told me he would punch him if he saw him.

But even as a young radical he was obviously smart and ambitious, a natural politician. He makes no effort to conceal his ambition - on the wall of the waiting room in his campaign office hang portraits of all seven of Indonesia's presidents, followed by Prabowo, and then Budiman himself.

As a relatively new entity, compared to the other big parties in this election, Prabowo's political machine offers more opportunities for a politician in a hurry.

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Budiman Sujatmiko outside prison in 1998 - and now at his campaign office

And Budiman isn't alone. Six out of the nine survivors of the 1998 kidnappings have either worked for Prabowo, or are backing him for president. Their reasons aren't too different to Budiman's.

Indonesia has changed and so must they, goes the argument. Even a strongman like Prabowo, whom they once opposed, is at the mercy of the ballot box now.

At a recent rally, Prabowo introduced Budiman by joking about the way activists were hounded by the security forces under Suharto. "Sorry man, I used to chase after you too - but hey, I apologised."

But then at the violent peak of their bitter rivalry in 2019 Jokowi and Prabowo also patched up their differences with minimal fuss. Jokowi offered Prabowo the job of defence minister, a powerful position which forced the US to drop the visa ban it had imposed over his human rights record.

Jokowi was the first Indonesian leader with no links to the old political elite, whose humble origins drove his appeal. He had no party machinery of his own, and relied on his skill in co-opting his rivals to be able to govern and push through his signature development projects.

But he hobbled the once-independent anti-corruption commission. He ushered in a sweeping cyber-crime law that has been used to prosecute hundreds who have criticised the government. Then he got his son on the ticket as Prabowo's running mate, through a controversial ruling at the constitutional court, on which his brother-in-law was a sitting judge.

All of this has uncomfortable echoes of the authoritarian Suharto era. The dictator, like Jokowi, was from the cultural heartland of central Java. He styled himself the "Father of Development" - and that has been at the heart of Jokowi's legacy too, much of it funded by Chinese investment.

Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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Prabowo's slick social media campaign has been a hit with young voters

"He's a brilliant politician, but not necessarily a good leader," says Okky Madasari, a novelist and sociologist who has produced a series of video debates warning of the dangers of a Jokowi-Prabowo axis.

"That kind of person is a threat to Indonesian democracy. Why? Because he is not thinking about his country. He is only thinking about how to preserve his power, and to give it to his family, to his sons."

What these political compromises have given Indonesia is stability - in his second term Jokowi had the support of parties holding more than 80% of the seats in parliament.

An 'impossible' country

"We are always worried about disintegration," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an academic who has been adviser to one president and two vice-presidents.

Back in 1999, she was a close adviser to President Habibie, who had the unenviable job of holding Indonesia together in the post-Suharto turmoil. "He used to say he was the captain of an aircraft which was crashing, but everybody was attacking the captain."

There was communal violence all over the country, some of it shockingly brutal. I watched Muslims and Christians tearing each other apart in the Moluccas. One month later I saw people in Kalimantan beheading and disembowelling their neighbours. In Aceh, the army was struggling to contain a strong and popular independence movement. And President Habibie had agreed to a referendum in East Timor, which would eventually declare its independence.

To my question then, that would Indonesia consider letting Aceh go as well, Dewi had retorted that Indonesia was either the former Dutch East Indies or it was nothing. Did the West really want to see it break up like an Asian Yugoslavia?

"You know being united is always a premium for us," she says now. "And that means making big tent, rainbow coalitions in government, as Jokowi has done."

But she adds: "If you go too far in that direction, it's very difficult to build a strong democracy, because then you don't have credible checks and balances, you don't have a credible opposition."

Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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Indonesia absorbed the chaos of Suharto's fall, triggered by student protests in 1998

Image source, BBC/ Jonathan Head

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But soon violence erupted in various parts of the country

A last-minute campaign has got going online, using a four-fingered salute, to distinguish from those used by the three candidates to match their registered election number, to try to persuade voters to back "anyone but Prabowo".

It is not clear yet how effective it has been. But the Prabowo campaign is pushing hard to win outright in the first round and avoid a runoff, where the four-finger campaign might pick up momentum.

A couple of students at a Prabowo youth rally told me they felt his message was more relevant to the young - around one-third of the electorate is 30 years old or younger with no memory of the Suharto era.

When I asked what policies appealed most, they were not sure. They just liked the tone and style of the messaging. And they felt anyone backed by Jokowi must be a good thing.

In 1998, an inflexible, 32-year-old regime struggling to cope with the new forces of globalisation was the obvious target for frustrated youth. They wanted freedom and prosperity as Indonesia was hammered by a massive economic meltdown.

Today, after decades of stability and some prosperity, young Indonesian voters seem more likely to respond to an entertaining message - such as Prabowo's TikTok-fuelled campaign - than an inspiring one.

Can their democracy survive a Prabowo presidency?

The Indonesian state - built up methodically by Suharto - has survived much. The violent upheavals of the late 1990s, rising jihadist terrorism in the early 2000s that many thought would unravel it, the experiment with democracy - Indonesia has absorbed it all, mellowing it in the name of stability and peace.

There is a price to pay, in rights and freedoms no longer respected, and past abuses unacknowledged and unaccounted for.

Many Indonesians wish it were better. But they know it could be a lot worse. They only have to look across to Myanmar, in many ways a similar kind of impossible country, to know that.

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