Cover of UK edition of Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani from Granta
(The UK cover, from Granta)

Cover of the US edition of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
(The US cover, from Norton)

(The Indonesian cover, from Godown Lontar)

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Now Indonesia's democracy really is in danger

Bupati's office, Sumba Barat Daya, October 2011

Bupati's office, Sumba Barat Daya, September 2014

When Joko Widodo was confirmed as Indonesia’s new president by the Constitutional Court late last month, there was a collective sigh of relief. Indonesians could, at least for a few years, stop worrying about a major threat to their democracy.* Not so fast. Parliament is currently discussing whipping away Indonesian’s right to elect the people who have the greatest impact on the daily lives of citizens: their mayors or district heads (walikota/bupati). The suggestion is to go back to the system in place before 2005, when district heads were appointed by the local parliament.

That system was abandoned because it was so corrupt. Local parliaments are small and often stuffed with scions of large local clans whose members expect great things of their representative in government. Parliamentarians used their power of appointment not to oversee the executive, as their mandate demanded, but to wring from the district head jobs and contracts for their supporters, as well as lots of money. Some of that money flowed back to the political party that the MPs represented.

Now some in the national parliament, in particular members of the parties that backed the losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, want to reinstate that system. The reason they give, with no apparent tinge of irony, is that direct elections are expensive and lead to “money politics” and corruption. There’s no doubt that direct elections are highly transactional. But the transactions made and the deals done during direct elections have far more beneficieries. More important still, direct elections act as a cap on the worst types of corruption and graft. Indonesian voters are willing to accept a certain amount of distributional corruption, aka patronage; indeed they expect it. But a district head who goes too far in enriching him/herself and his/her cronies and who delivers too little to the voters will lose their seat at the next elections. Direct elections keep Indonesian politicians at least semi-honest.

The old crocodiles of the party machinery — and virtually all the heads of parties backing a return to indirect elections are old crocodiles — are painfully aware that direct elections for district head also open the door to new blood. As Jakarta’s Governor-in-waiting Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok) observed on Monday, incoming president Jokowi would never have been elected Mayor of the small city of Solo by the party cartels in the local legislature, much less Governor of Jakarta. Ditto Ahok himself: the ethnic Chinese politician won his seat as bupati of Belitung Timur because of the his reputation as an effective manager locally, not because of his party connections.

It happens that I spent Monday hanging around a district where direct elections haven’t worked so well: Sumba Barat Daya. The photos above might be taken as symbolic of what can go wrong with local democracy (I took the photo on the right three years ago, the photo on the left this week). As I sat in an outdoor canteen chatting with disillusioned bureaucrats, their new boss was being inaugurated as district head over a thousand kilometres away in Jakarta. That’s not the way things are supposed to happen. Normally, bupatis are chosen by the population and inaugurated by the local parliament. But the election in deeply tribal Sumba Barat Daya was disputed, many say stolen. The Constitutional Court, then headed by a man who has since been jailed for accepting bribes to overturn local election results, ruled against the incumbent and in favour of a candidate from a rival tribe. The hot-headed Sumbanese, who rarely leave home without a machete strapped to their waists, wrote their displeasure on their rivals in blood and flaming buildings; the rival clan reciprocated. The local parliament, still dominated by supporters of the loser, refused to inaugurate the anointed winner of the election, and the district has been without an elected head for a year.

While we were talking politics near the local parliament, three trucks packed to the gills with police and riot shields came past. Though the inauguration was in Jakarta, trouble was expected in Sumba. “Imagine, people dying over who gets to be bupati,” said one of my companions in disgust. I asked if indirect elections would solve the problem. “What difference would that make?” another asked. “The manipulation would just be at a different level. It doesn’t stop people getting their machetes out.”

It’s worth pointing out that Sumba (along with parts of Papua) is an exception. Indonesia generally has very low levels of election-related violence. I’ve written a lot about decentralisation, for better and for worse. But now that direct local elections are under threat, I have to agree with a young friend of mine, Lia. She lives in a high-roofed bamboo house on a hill-top in West Sumba, and she turned 18 on July 9th, the day of the presidential election. “It was a really special present, to be able to participate in democracy,” she said. When I asked what she thought of indirect elections for district head, she turned fierce. “They can’t do that. It’s our right to choose our leaders. They can’t take that away from us.” To the post-Suharto generation, and that’s now a LOT of the electorate, direct elections are a given.

I suspect even most older Indonesians now feel the same way; they know a great deal about the individuals who vie to run their district, who will make all the important decisions about health, education, road-building and much else, and they want to choose for themselves between the candidates. Interestingly, not one of the 20 or so people I have asked in the last two days has been able to name the member of parliament that is supposed to represent them in the national parliament in Jakarta, the very party political crocodiles who are currently plotting to remove the right to vote for district head. Perhaps a group such as Kawal Pemilu, which used a network of volunteers to defuse tension around the presidential election by providing a parallel but more rapid tally of the votes, should take on the task of letting people know how to contact their national MP. However they do it, I very much hope Indonesians make an effort to find out who their MP is, and to make their feelings about direct elections known in time to head the erosion of democracy off at the pass.

*Anyone who doubts that one man can hollow out a democracy single-handedly and in a few short years, should read Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face, about Vladimir Putin. The principal difference between Russia’s New Dictator and Prabowo Subianto is that the former looks better shirtless on horseback.

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Indonesia Etc: lessons for Scotland

Memorial celebrating Indonesia's independence, 4 years late

Memorial celebrating Indonesia’s independence, 4 years late

Sixty-nine years ago today, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta blurted out the two sentences that gave Indonesia its independence (and my book its title):

‘We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence
of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be
executed carefully and as soon as possible.’

I had cause to think about that during a visit to Scotland this week, just a month before all residents of Scotland over the age of 16 get to answer the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If more than 50% of those who vote say yes, the United Kingdom will be united no more. As the photo above indicates, the Indonesians didn’t have it quite so easy. The former Dutch colonisers, who fled the invading Japanese at the start of World War II, fully expected to waltz back in to re-occupy Indonesia after the Japanese surrender. It took four years of tortured negotiations and bloody resistance before the Netherlands conceded that Indonesians should be allowed to govern themselves.

The Scots get to achieve nationhood just by showing up to the polls and declaring they want it. And yet almost none of the discussion I heard in Edinburgh was about national identity, about what it would mean to be Scottish. Everything seemed to be focused on the practical minutiae of a split; the currency Scotland might use in particular. The coverage in the London-based “British” press is even more focused around the belly-button of administrative details.

It’s easy to make fun of Indonesia’s slapdash declaration of independence, with its “etc.” and its “as soon as possible”. But if nationalists had sat down and worked out all the administrative details of the highly improbable country now known as Indonesia before they declared independence, the Dutch would still be there. As I’ve observed before, Indonesia is still now working on its ‘etc.’ And yet on its 69th birthday, it is looking stronger than ever before.

The 1950s were riven with dissent; there were active (and sometimes quite bloody) rebellions in West Java, West Sumatra, Aceh, Maluku and Sulawesi. This was not least because in some versions of the history of independence, including the one immortalised on the monument in Banda Neira pictured here, islands outside of Java expected a great deal more autonomy than they actually got once Sukarno began consolidating his own centralising vision.

The salient event of the 1960s was mass murder, which took different forms in different parts of the country but left nowhere untouched. The 1970s saw the unhappy “integration” of East Timor, whose people immediately started resisting Suharto’s forces. Papuans, cajoled into joining Indonesia just a few years earlier, began to make their displeasure known too. And the Quixotic Achenese-in-exile Hasan di Tiro spent a brief spell making trouble back in his homeland.

Although low-grade rebellions grumbled on in East Timor and Papua through the 1980s, it was a relatively quiet time, mostly because the army had grown better at stamping on the first signs of independent thinking. Labour unions were progressively emasculated and the first signs of resurgent rebel activity in Aceh were comprehensively crushed. They surfaced again in the 1990s in part because the army, fed up that Suharto’s family had elbowed it away from the trough of ill-gotten gains, was less keen to defend the Old Man. The decade ended in chaos, with the economy in free-fall and Suharto on the skids.

The start of the new millennium, when different groups were jostling for power in the post-Suharto landscape, was a dangerous time. The military, regional elites, radical Moslem groups and others circled one another in an attempt to secure resources and there were many conflagrations. But over the last 15 years, the country has settled down. Indonesians have just rejected the offer of a return to the “good old days” of stability enforced with an iron fist. Since his defeat, Prabowo Subianto — the man that offered the iron fist — has dedicated himself with almost comical excess to reminding Indonesians just how right they were to look to the future rather than the past. The future is full of challenges, certainly. But if the new government can steer a course between the needs of the nation and the desires of the regions, Indonesia’s eighth decade will be its strongest and most peaceful yet.

The potential citizens of an independent Scotland should keep in mind that nations don’t have to sweat all the details before they actually exist. The Scottish referendum is not about the pound, or Europe, or Trident. It is about whether Scotland should exist as an independent nation. If enough people share a conviction that it should, they can work out the rest as they go along.

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Things to do before you turn 50

What to do on the beautiful summer afternoon before your 50th birthday? Learn something new, obviously. I chose trapeze flying. I could draw comparisons between this exhilarating leap into nothingness and Indonesian politics in its current phase of and heady uncertainty, but I think I’ll just let it swing.

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Generous Granta: Indonesia Etc ebook for (almost) free

Indonesia Etc Granta front cover

Lovely Granta, who publish Indonesia Etc. in the UK, Australia and many Commonwealth countries, have generously agreed to try a new experiment: they are making the e-book available for next to nothing to people who have already bought the hardback.

If you own a smartphone and physical copy of Indonesia Etc that has the cover pictured above, you can claim a copy of the plain ebook for just 99 cents (less than 70p). Here’s how it works:

1) on your smartphone, download a free app called BitLit (Android and Apple versions available)

2) With your smartphone, take a photo of the whole cover of the book.

3) Write your full name in capital letters on the COPYRIGHT page of the book (opposite the dedication page, where it has the details of ISBN etc.)

4) Take a photo of the copyright page.

Your Google Play/iTunes account will be charged 99c, and the folk at BitLit will send a link to both ePub (iBooks, Kobo etc) and .mobi (Kindle) versions to the e-mail account associated with your downloads. Bitlit have provided nice, clear, visual instructions to help. The whole process took me less than three minutes.

Why is Granta doing this? Why would any publisher, in these difficult times, give something away so cheaply? Because they are willing to experiment with new ways of making their readers happy. I hope this bundling will make many people happy because I think a lot of readers are like me: hungry for good books, but a bit skint, and forced to make choices. I love the look and feel of a well-produced book (and Granta’s edition of Indonesia Etc., with its gorgeous cover by Rod Hunt and its lovely fold-out map, is definitely well-produced). But I also like to read on the move, to carry non-fiction books with me for reference, and to search books electronically. That, and the cheaper price, often tips me towards the electronic version; I’ve never once been able to afford both.

BitLit’s technology and Granta’s generousity have removed the dilemma in territories where you are allowed to buy their edition. Granta are doing this as an experiment, so if you think it’s a good idea (and if you’d like to see them do this with other books, past and future) email Granta to thank them for trying it out with Indonesia Etc., and to make your suggestions.

Happy Id-ul-Fitri, dan selamat membaca.

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Let the cow-trading begin!

A shop in Solo capitalises on the popularity of Jokowi's trademark check shirts.

A shop in Solo capitalises on the popularity of Jokowi’s trademark check shirts.

Well, it’s official. Over 133 million Indonesians cast their votes peacefully, had them counted repeatedly and now have a new president elect. Congratulations to Indonesians for staying unflustered in the face of Prabowo Subianto’s schoolboy tantrums.

Now we’ll see a recap of the “dagang sapi”, the cow trading, that preceded the election. Already, some senior figures in Golkar have begun to mumble about switching allegiance to Jokowi’s coalition. Jokowi has repeatedly said that he’s not going to play at dishing out cabinet posts to secure support (a strategy which has so clearly failed SBY). But if he doesn’t, he may find himself unable to work Indonesia’s Byzantine parliamentary committee system effectively enough to push through the radical reforms that Indonesia so badly needs. An end to the crippling fuel subsidy, for example. A coherent (and feasible) plan to build the infrastructure that Indonesia will need to employ its growing population.

For reasons that I discuss at greater length in a recent essay in the Nikkei Asian Review, Jokowi’s plan to reform the bureaucracy will not be universally popular; sinecure jobs in the civil service are just too important a unit of currency in district elections.

Indonesia continues to exist because of its extraordinary talent for compromise. It’s inevitable that the future President Jokowi will be forced to compromise on some of the principles dearest to him. He was elected by the Indonesian people, but (like Barak Obama in the United States) he has to work within a political system that is beholden to a very small though perhaps increasingly disparate elite. He won’t be able to rely just on his popularity to carry him through, especially if he really does tackle wasteful subsidies.

Jokowi appears to be a methodical man who avoids the sticking-plaster solutions so beloved of elected politicians everywhere. His immediate challenge will be to co-opt or otherwise appease the people who could thwart his plans for reform, without selling out to their agendas. That, of course, includes Prabowo and his supporters.

On the subject of which, I had to laugh when I saw this tweet from the marvellous Masha Gessen:
masha_gessen_tweet It came across my screen just after Prabowo had thrown his toys out of the cot and flounced out of the counting process. Hmmm, I thought for a nano-second, I didn’t know Masha was interested in Indonesia. Of course she’s talking about that other self-satisfied politician who likes to kidnap activits, Vladimir Putin.

I have a lingering question about the election: how many of the 62,576,444 Indonesians who voted for Prabowo would do so again if the election were repeated tomorrow? I believe the General-Until-He-Was-Fired would have many fewer supporters. People chose him because he promised stability; then he set about trying to create chaos. It is a testament to the sangfroid of the Indonesian electorate that it didn’t come to that.

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Keep calm, Indonesia. But not too calm.

“Indonesians are not idiots!” I proclaimed in my final post before the election, waxing lyrical about the common sense of the Indonesian electorate. They wouldn’t, I predicted, be swayed by Prabowo Subianto’s bluster. By election day I was getting very nervous indeed. Then the Quick Count results came through. “I told you so” is never a pretty sentence, but I was inordinately happy to be able to pronounce it.

It appears, though, that I was wrong about a large minority of the population. And from his subsequent actions, it seems Prabowo himself is prominent in that minority. In this astonishing interview with the BBC World Service, aired two days after a majority of Indonesian voters chose Jokowi, Prabowo also claims that Indonesians are not idiots.

Here, at around minute 6.55, is one gem: “I am leading a coalition which represents nearly two thirds of Indonesian voters. How, how do two thirds of the Indonesian people, how can they be fooled, how can they be so stupid to be, to be, to support someone who is, what all my rivals accuse me of being?”

Indonesia did come bottom of the international league table in maths, but even primary school students know that 48% (roughly the percentage of Indonesians that voted for Prabowo according all reputable counts) is smaller than two thirds, as well as being smaller than the 50.01 percent that he would need for the victory he is claiming.

Prabowo is both idiotic, for thinking that the Indonesian people might be turned from their democratic course, and horribly clever in how he might do that. Ed Aspinal and Marcus Meitzner have given a fascinating account of how Prabowo is likely to try to usurp the vote before the final count (Indonesian translation here).

His hypocrisy knows no bounds. He rails at unnamed “Imperialists” (sooooo 1950s) for plotting against him, he accuses the Western press of unfairly backing his rival. And, in the BBC interview, he claims: “My rival is the product of a PR campaign, he is actually a tool of the oligarchs.”

All this from a man who has hired US campaign consultant Rob Allyn to orchestrate his own attack on the polls, and on Jokowi. Rob Allyn, a fundraiser for George W Bush cut his teeth (or perhaps smeared them) first on the campaign that sought to undermine Senator John McCain’s military record. For someone so resentful of non-Indonesians meddling in national affairs, Prabowo seems to be listening closely to Allyn. Indeed there are many things about his current approach that echo the US presidental vote in 2000. That was the election in which victorious Democrats allowed scheming Republicans to steal the presidency from under their noses. To this day, I’ve never understood why U.S. citizens sat on their hands and witnessed this hijacking of the democratic principles that they are so keen to promote overseas (if somewhat selectively, witness Egypt and Palestine).

Americans are a lot more apathetic about their democracy than Indonesians are. And there was frankly a lot less difference between Bush and Gore in 2000 than there is between Prabowo and Jokowi in 2014. I applaud Jokowi and his supporters for staying calm and allowing the increasingly ridiculous-looking Prabowo to burst himself with his own bluster. But don’t stay TOO calm, please. If it comes to it, the majority of Indonesians who want to defend democracy may have to take a slightly more proactive approach.

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[I really hope] Indonesians are not idiots

Originally written for New Mandala under the title “Indonesians are not idiots”. Interesting comments @ the original post.

Voting booth in Indonesian elections

What Indonesians do in polling and what they do in the voting booth are two very different things. Photo credit: Fully Handoko/EPA/AP

As Prabowo Subianto’s messianic nationalism chomps through rival presidential candidate Joko Widodo’s once-unassailable lead in Indonesia’s opinion polls, New Mandala and other fora have flared with concern. Prabowo is a thug, they say (though a lot more politely); he will shut down democracy, he will take Indonesia back to the bad old days of autocracy-in-the-name-of-stability.

If he’s elected, he may well do exactly that. But here’s the thing: on election day, July 9th, Indonesia will still be a democracy, and a pretty robust one at that. Prabowo will only be able to exercise his nefarious plans if he is elected. The hand-wringing should, therefore, be a lot less about Prabowo’s intentions, and a lot more about the intentions of the 187 million Indonesians who are registered to vote.
I’m a lot less qualified to wring my hands than most of the commentators on New Mandala; for one thing, I have not been in Indonesia since late 2013, and have thus missed all the latest twists and turns of publicity, campaigning, and distribution of largesse, the sorts of things that influence what people say to pollsters. To me, however, the disparity between the opinion polls and the electoral results in previous elections in Indonesia suggest that the hoopla of campaigning does not affect people’s voting behaviour in quite the same way.

At campaign rallies (at least the local ones I’ve attended in many provinces) Indonesians speak of handouts, prizes and inducements; they rate contestants by the quality of the food on offer. (For the record, the best I came across was provided during a 2012 visit to Gorontalo by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Edhie Baskoro; I counted 24 different kaki lima food vendors offering all-expenses-paid dishes of many types. The Democrat Party also used the early morning rally to give away electric fans, microwaves, smartphones and a motorbike.) But in private, on the back verandah of a fisherman’s cottage in the Banggai islands, roasting coffee beans in a kitchen in Aceh, or while collecting fiddle-head ferns for supper near a longhouse in Kalimantan, people use different words about the way they vote: ikhlas, hati nurani, murni, sejati: the words of conscience, or purity, of I’ll vote with my brain not with my free T-shirt.

I spoke to several thousand “ordinary” Indonesian voters in over a year of travelling some of the further-flung parts of the country in 2011/2012, at the length that is permitted (indeed enforced) by a five day ferry journey or a week celebrating a relative’s death. Jokowi was a new kid on the block then, but Prabowo was already a well-known quantity. People admired Prabowo for being tegas — firm or resolute, in its kinder translations. The most enthusiastic admirers — principally in deeply hierarchical Java — muttered approvingly about his “iron fist”, and some went so far as to say that Indonesia needed a firm leader. But the final verdict was almost always: “Sayangnya, sih Prabowo suka melanngar HAM”: The problem is, Prabowo abuses human rights. Politicians will all do dubious deals with large corporations or rich donors, voters appear to reason, they will all steal money one way or another. But they will not all steal your dignity. Indonesians have had enough of that.

Prabowo has run a slick campaign, it’s true. Nearly two years ago, I was already seeing his team parking ambulances plastered with his image and slogans including “Free Medical Care” outside the tombs of saints in outer islands to advertise his virtues to passing pilgrims. Meanwhile Megawati Sukarnoputri has done all she can to undermine her candidate Jokowi’s chances. Megawati has a peculiar talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; she did it in 1999, before Indonesian voters were allowed a direct say, and again in 2005. Jokowi has not managed to limit the damage that PDIP infighting has done to his chances — that should raise concerns about how well he will do in the bear-pit of national politics. So it is still possible that Prabowo will indeed triumph. But I don’t think it is likely.

As Prabowo himself has said, Indonesians love their democracy. For all the bitching and moaning about corruption at the District/Municipal (Kabupaten/Kota) level, most Indonesians outside of Java have no desire to see their affairs controlled once again by a small clique of presidential cronies in Jakarta, and most voters know that Prabowo will claw power back to the centre if he can. Indonesians are getting a lot more sophisticated about their democracy, too (as they should be, with a minimum of seven direct elections in any given five-year cycle to practice on). As I noted in an essay in Foreign Affairs, they did not allow the interests of national parties to trump their own immediate interests in April’s legislative elections. They are likely to defend their own interests in the presidential election as well.

Indonesians have a choice and they know it. In my experience, they are not as easily swayed by nationalist bluster and Sukarno wannabe rhetoric as many commentators fear. If my faith in the basic common sense of the Indonesian electorate is misplaced and a majority of voters choose Prabowo, well, the Indonesian people will get the government they deserve.

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Department of Self-Promotion: The Economist loves Indonesia Etc!

Indonesia Etc in the Stoke Newington Bookshop, North LondonIndonesia Etc in the Panta Rhei Bookshop, Madrid


So does Simon Winchester (writing in the Wall Street Journal) — “…a spectacular achievement and one of the very best travel books I have read..”
Pallavi Aiyar, in The LA Review of Books — “I found myself nearly trembling with excitement…I was finally holding in my hands that elusive Indonesia book: a rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights”
Tim Hannigan, in The Asian Review of Books — “A formidably insightful and engaging book on Indonesia for a general readership… the book also provides a model for “portrait of the nation” travelogues fit for the 21st-century”
and Jim Della-Giacoma, in New Mandala — “It is her impish humour that is infused throughout that will draw readers in… Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country.”

I’ve posted the full text of these on the reviews page and will keep posting others (both good and bad) as they come in.

Original post:

Indonesia Etc. was officially published in the UK on June 5th, and comes out in the US next Monday. But friends have already spotted it in bookshops (real, old-fashioned, delightful, independent bookshops, please support them!) in London, Madrid and Chatham, in Cape Cod (where I’m in the good company of Hilary Clinton, Michael Lewis and Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

We’ve had nice reviews in the Literary Review and Indonesia Expat, which are rather different publications. Now today’s Economist dedicates its lead review to Indonesia Etc.

The Economist calls the book “probably the best” book for the general reader on Indonesia (less fulsome, perhaps, than Indonesia Expat’s “surely the richest account of contemporary Indonesia yet to be published”, but I’ll take it!).

My favourite excerpt from The Economist’s very thorough review:

Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist.
In her new book Ms Pisani takes on many big themes—democracy, decentralisation, corruption, inequality, the failings of Indonesia’s education system and radical Islam, as well as the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands slaughtered as Suharto took power in 1965. Her erudition is never dull.

Ok, enough bragging.

I’m just very glad that not all readers reacted to the book in the same way as my friend Palani.


Full disclosure: the photo was taken at 1 a.m. on the way home from the exceedingly jolly and rather well-watered London launch party.

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Prabowo or Jokowi: does it really matter?

The Prabowo Steam Roller

The Prabowo Steam Roller

With two televised debates down and three to go, opinion is divided on which of Indonesia’s two presidential candidates is looking most, well, presidential. Jokowi did better than expected in the first debate, by many accounts (see for example ANU’s Greg Fealy), though as Unspun points out, he was much helped by his wily old Buginese running mate, Jusuf Kalla. Pitched one-on-one in the second debate, Prabowo seems to be gaining ground. A new opinion poll suggests that Prabowo may have overtaken Jokowi in the electability stakes.

In a new essay in Foreign Affairs, written before we knew the final list of candidates, I argue that the results of the presidential election won’t affect most Indonesians’ lives as much as many Jakarta-watchers think, as long as Indonesia’s current highly decentralised political structure holds. But if Prabowo wins, he may well try to pull power back to Jakarta. Prabowo is both a New Order and a military man through and through. Ergo, his much-vaunted “experience” is experience of a highly-centralised and highly hierarchical system, a system that does not currently exist except in the mind of Jakarta-centric politicians and analysts. He has exploited some aspects of decentralisation quite brilliantly, notably by co-opting his erstwhile enemies in Partai Aceh. In daily life, though, he seems not to register how strongly many Indonesians feel about liberation from Suharto’s brand of Javanese colonization. One tiny but perhaps telling indication of this came in this impassioned campaign speech in Medan, where he broke into Javanese. That should be anathema for a politician campaigning in proudly independent-minded North Sumatra.

Prabowo speaks more convincingly than Jokowi of the need to spread wealth throughout Indonesia, it’s true. But my sense is that 15 years of increasingly fragmented decentralisation have, for better or for worse, taught people to care deeply about their local identities. Outside of Java, Indonesians want to make their own decisions and mistakes, not to inherit Jakarta’s. IF a majority of Indonesians were to indulge their nostalgia for a “tangan besi” — an Iron Fisted ruler — and elect Prabowo, they should not be surprised if he tries to re-centralise power. It’s a big IF, though I think that Hamish Mcdonald provides interesting reflections on Prabowo’s enduring appeal. For what it’s worth, my own totally unscientific conversations with hundreds of Indonesians around the country before the formal start of the campaign revealed a fair bit of “What this country needs is an iron fist” in Java, and a great deal of “All leaders are corrupt, but not all of them abuse human rights” in other parts of the country, the latter sentiment often followed up with: “Of course the Bupati’s a crook, but at least he’s OUR crook”. Since over 60% of the voters are in Java, there’s a real possibility that the tangan besi will prevail. That ought to be worrisome for both voters and politicians who want to hang on to their new-found powers at the district level.

[If you want to read the Foreign Affairs essay but don't want to access Foreign Affairs it through their free sign-up, here's an html version. There's an interesting analysis and helpful translation of Prabowo's Medan campaign speech by Liam Gammon here.]

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Not-quite remembering Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, 1989

Tiananmen Square, 1989. Photo by the wonderful Erica Lansner

Late last night, one of the many friends who helped me celebrate the launch of Indonesia Etc reminded me of where he and I had been at exactly that hour 25 years earlier. We were both Reuters reporters at the time; Andy Roche was being banged up by Chinese cops in the backstreets not far from Tiananmen Square and I was in the Square itself. I was watching as tanks rolled towards me and trying to figure out how I could stay alive AND get the news out to the world.

There has been lots of remembering and reflecting on those events, not least from James Miles writing in the Economist. His analysis is exceptional (though not for him!) in its level-headedness. There’s also a collection of coverage in Foreign Affairs including this piece from Andrew Nathan and Jeff Wasserstrom’s Congressional testimony, and Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, which I haven’t yet read. But how much of what we “remember” about the events before and on June 4th 1989 have been rewritten in the light of what has happened since?

It’s a commonplace to say that history is written by the victors, but its “first draft” — the journalistic record in the pre-Twitter age — is often written by scared, hungry, sleep-deprived correspondents who have an imperfect understanding of the language around them and see only a couple of tiles of the great mosaic of events that surrounds them. When memory gets to work the picture becomes even more distorted, even before any deliberate political rewritings do their work. In this piece I wrote in Granta Magazine on the 20th anniversary of 1898 I reflected on the tricks my own mind has played with memories of Tiananmen Square. For what it’s worth, I’ve posted it again here in memory — or not — of those that died.

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