Last week, popular rock musician Ahmad Dhani announced his support for Prabowo Subianto, explaining to his youthful followers the reasons for his decision:
‘Almost every manly man [lelaki jantan] votes for Prabowo. If a man doesn’t vote for Prabowo, his masculinity [kejantanan] must be questioned.’
Indeed, Prabowo and his supporters sell him as the presidential candidate that, in contrast to front-runner Jokowi, is the more tegas (firm/decisive) candidate. This is put down to Prabowo’s military background, his ultra-nationalist rhetoric, and his carefully cultivated image as stately and king-like. For an electorate that after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s lacklustre second term is craving for firm leadership, these qualities find traction, especially amongst the likes of Ahmad Dhani.
Polls indicate that a relatively low, but growing, percentage of Indonesians consider being tegas an important quality. An Indikator poll from January-February revealed that only 5% of voters considered being tegas the most important quality of a candidate. Surprisingly, of those who found being tegas to be important, 37% believed that Jokowi possessed this quality, while only 32% thought that Prabowo did. But by May, polling found that just over 9% believed tegas to be an important quality. By now, only 29% credited Jokowi with this quality while 51% thought Prabowo had it.
Does this mean Prabowo is benefiting from a strong-man image? Within some constituencies he almost certainly is, especially as his competitor – tongue-tied Joko Widodo – has so far failed to present any kind of assertive or authoritative mien. While polls indicate that honesty remains the most valued quality in a candidate for voters – and Jokowi is beating Prabowo on that front – there is no reason why Jokowi wouldn’t benefit from a more assertive image. In light of the narrowing gap in the polls between the two candidates, Jokowi’s supporters ought to hope that he starts to make more resolute declarations that convince the electorate he actually wants the presidency.
On the other hand, Prabowo’s decisive appearance is built on a dark history. As son-in-law of President Suharto, his rise through the military ranks was accompanied by an aura of untouchability. In his autobiography, B.j. Habibie writes of the ‘terror’ that struck him when Prabowo showed up at the presidential palace the day after Suharto’s resignation. On his first full day as president, Habibie had just removed Prabowo from his position as commander of the elite KOSTRAD army unit for ordering troops toward the palace without the knowledge of Wiranto, then Commander of the Armed Forces. Reportedly, Prabowo and his entourage scuffled with the presidential guard after Prabowo refused to hand over his pistol.
His militarised image—he still salutes supporters during campaign meet-and-greets—cannot be separated from his notoriously short temper, his human rights record, nor from the possible approach a President Prabowo might take towards dissent. Within journalistic circles stories abound of him being unable to contain his machismo. In one infamous story he reportedly threw his mobile phone at PPP officials after the party withdrew its support for him shortly before the 2009 elections. Over the years, many such outbursts have been witnessed by journalists and bystanders, but very few have made it into the press, most likely due to fear of antagonising Prabowo or creating problems with his powerful supporters.
As Prabowo narrows the gap between himself and Jokowi in the presidential race, journalists and media outlets have even more reason to avoid offending him, even though those following encounter growing evidence of his volatility.
On Thursday (22/5/14) afternoon a video began circulating on social media that allegedly shows Prabowo punching a bystander in the face while entering the Electoral Commission (KPU) on Tuesday (20/5/14), to register himself as a presidential candidate. A scuffle broke out in the crowded lobby of the KPU and Prabowo appears to jab his fist at a man who was pushing him. Whether it was simply a reflex owing to decades worth of special forces training, and whether the fist made contact, is unclear. When Prabowo made it to the second floor, where his registration took place, the media noticed he had spots of blood on his shirt, which were initially said to be from broken glass.
In a vibrant democracy with a free and competitive media that is thirsty for scandalous content, the fact that a presidential candidate was involved in a scuffle of this sort ought to be big news. In addition, the mere possibility that he may have thrown a punch, inside the premises of the Electoral Commission, on the day of his official registration as a presidential candidate, might prompt TV networks and commentators to closely examine the evidence, talking a captivated audience through the video frame by frame.
Instead, while a ‘scuffle’ was reported, it took until Friday afternoon before any mention of a ‘punch’ appeared in the press. By then it was in the context of denials by senior Gerindra officials who alleged the video was part of a so-called ‘black campaign’—malicious and false anti-Prabowo propaganda. Explaining the swift motion of Prabowo’s arm, Gerindra’s Secretary Genera Ahmad Muzani explained that ‘Pak Prabowo is clearly reaching his hand out to try to hold on to a railing [pagar] to stop being pushed around’.
By Saturday morning, Gerindra officials were threatening legal action against those who distributed the video. In a statement that is sure to have had a chilling effect on media outlets and social media users, Habiburahman, head of Gerindra’s legal team, warned on Saturday that ‘we are currently chasing the people who spread these lies and we will report them to police under the Law on Information and Electronic Transactions [UU ITE]’. The law cited has been widely and controversially used to restrict freedom of expression on the internet, leading to jail sentences for defamation. By Sunday, Tifatul Sembiring, currently Minister for Communication and Information, and senior figure in one of Prabowo’s coalition partners, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party(PKS), confirmed that those spreading ‘black campaigns’ could go to jail for up to 6 years.
If read as a failure by the media to hold a presidential candidate to account for his problematic behavior, this episode is a damning commentary on the contemporary state of Indonesian democracy. But it could also be a glimpse into a possible future. Already existing laws, such as the Law on Information and Electronic Transactions or the recently passed Law on Societal Organizations, provide ample leeway in their interpretation to seriously curtail freedom of expression and chastise the media and civil society into acquiescence. In other words, the tools for a less liberal polity are there for the taking.
But there are alternative ways for politicians to express their assertiveness. Tom Power has pointed out that politicians who direct their public displays of anger against the right targets – corrupt bureaucrats, for example – can demonstrate tegas-ness and reap the political returns. Luhut Panjaitan, deputy head of Golkar’s advisory council and once Prabowo’s commanding officer in the Army, last week declared his support for Jokowi, despite his party officially aligning with Prabowo. His close knowledge of Prabowo appears to have been a factor in his decision to go against his party:
‘Because I know Prabowo, thats why I support Jokowi. We all know Prabowo, I know a lot [about him]. He used to be my deputy, for about five or six years. So I know him from A to Z.’
As a former military man, and hence surely an expert on these matters, Luhut was promptly asked by journalists whether Jokowi possesses the enviable quality of being tegas. Ahmad Dhani, and Indonesian voters, should pay close attention to the General’s answer: ‘tegas doesn’t mean having bulging eyes and throwing phones!‘
…or, throwing punches.
Dominic Berger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.