Stark contrasts, historical ignorance on display in Indonesian presidential race

Watching the 2014 presidential campaign in Indonesia is sometimes like watching a bad movie’s overwrought metaphor for the tension between democracy and authoritarianism playing out in real life. The choices have narrowed since I last described the presidential candidates, and on July 9, Indonesians will choose either the young populist Jakarta Mayor Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) or the ex-military general, human-rights-violator and billionaire Prabowo Subianto. The campaigns seems to be about image, not issues.

The latest example is the juxtaposition of two music videos released by supporters of the two candidates. On the one hand, a heartwarming cumbaya-style everyman song favoring Joko Widodo. On the other, an aggressive rip-off of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” featuring a Nazi aesthetic, favoring Prabowo and his running mate, Hatta Rajasa. Watch them for yourself below:

If you are seeing Nazi undertones in the pro-Prabowo video, it’s not in your head. In fact, as Time magazine noted, the black uniform worn by Indonesian rock star Ahmad Dhani is styled after that of the infamous SS commander Heinrich Himmler. Dhani sings “Prabowo Hatta… Indonesia rise up!… Who else?… When else?…”

Far from distancing himself from the artist or the attire sported in the video, Prabowo thanked the singers on June 20th, tweeting “This video will increase my spirit to fight. Rise up, Indonesia!”

As I’ve written before, Indonesians do not learn about the Nazi genocide in school, and many people here understand Nazis to be a powerful regime responsible for bringing Germany out of economic recession. Perhaps that is why Dhani himself was unrepentant when reporters questioned his choice of costume.

Not that Dhani (who also hosts the TV show “Indonesian Idol”) is known for upstanding citizenship to begin with. When I brought up his name in the lunch room, my female colleagues hissed, “I hate that man; he cheated on his wife with her best friend!” Dhani is also known for handing car keys to his 13-year-old son, whose irresponsible driving left seven people dead on a Jakarta highway.

On Thursday, after the video had been up for over a week and drawn widespread media attention, Prabowo’s campaign officially asked the artist to remove it, though the candidate himself remained silent. YouTube has taken down the original posting for copyright violations. Dhani finally apologized, though his words suggest he stills fails to understand the heart of the controversy: “I will never wear it again. I’ve learned my lesson … This was purely about fashion and was not related to ideology.”

No, Mr. Dhani, when your fashion explicitly mimics a historical figure and is used in an explicitly political forum, it cannot be de-linked from ideology, especially when genocide is a common thread. Prabowo himself is linked to several incidents that may qualify as massacres of civilians. He was discharged from the military for ordering the abduction of pro-democracy activists in 1998, and may have led some massacres during East Timor’s fight for Independence from Indonesia.

More importantly, Prabowo doesn’t seem to understand that violence against civilians to quash unrest is wrong. In 2001 he told American journalist Allan Nairn, “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press … Maybe commanders do it in villages where no one will ever know, but not in the provincial capital!” Dhani and Prabowo are only two of the Indonesian who seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of ethics. The problem is rampant among army and government officials. This week, Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, explained this well, putting it in the context of the violence perpetrated against civilians during Indonesia’s “New Order” era. He told the Jakarta Globe, “The government never said that what happened during the New Order era was wrong, so 16 years after the reformation our mindset remains the same. We just moved on without knowing what was wrong with the New Order, and as a result when Ahamd Dhani shows up in his Nazi uniform, some people think it is OK.”

Herein lies the difference between the two candidates. The campaign is the perpetual juxtaposition of the ideals of power, strength and authoritarian leadership, and those of participative, citizens’ democracy. Jokowi walks through the crowds of his supporters, shakes their hands and listens to them, wearing a common man’s checkered shirt. Prabowo rides past his supporters on horseback. Every Indonesian who has told me that they prefer Prabowo has used the words “strong man” in their description. They want a leader who will bring order and get things done, even if that means sacrificing human or civil rights. (Very few people care about Prabowo’s human-rights record.) Most of these people long for some part of Indonesia’s past which they viewed as more orderly and prosperous (a time when dissent was met with violence). Those who prefer Jokowi tell me they need a new Indonesia, one that breaks with the past and where their voices are heard.

In total contrast to the pro-Prabowo video, a handful of popular Indonesian artists incorporated the international symbol for peace in the “Two-finger Salute” video, promoting Jokowi’s ballot number, 2. The video which was released before Dhani’s, has an authentic everyday-Indonesia feel and features a group of friends at a typical warung (Indonesian eatery) at the end singing “two-finger salute, don’t forget to vote for Jokowi.” You may notice all of the smiles, so different from the stark aggression of the pro-Prabowo video.

Difficult as it may be to believe, the race is incredibly close. Prabowo has closed the poll gap from a few months ago, which Jokowi lead by a wide margin, to surpass his opponent in many polls. With the election just a few weeks away, we are all watching with anticipation and awe as the campaign unfolds.

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One Response to Stark contrasts, historical ignorance on display in Indonesian presidential race

  1. I’m back to Jakarta just after the election.. really appreciate all your insights and updates. Let’s see what happens!

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