Prabowo’s dog-whistling

As Hamish McDonald wrote in a provocative (and, I think, misunderstood) post on New Mandala yesterday:

As the race for the palace heats up, this is a new meme starting to surface. Perhaps, the former Kopassus (Special Forces) general and Suharto son-in-law might be easier to deal with, more likely to knock Indonesia into shape, than his rival for the presidency, the Jakarta governor Joko Widodo or “Jokowi”.

Among Westerners who’ve met them both, Prabowo is someone who “thinks like us” and talks like a Westerner, thanks to his education in Singapore, Britain and other places during his economist father’s exile between 1958 and 1965 for joining a failed rebellion.

McDonald may well be right. But these Westerners should know that the Prabowo they’ve been speaking to is different to the Prabowo who speaks to a bussed-in crowd at a campaign stop.

An excerpt from the above footage of Prabowo’s speech at a rally in Medan yesterday (taken from a live broadcast on tvOne, owned by Prabowo backer Aburizal Bakrie) has been doing the rounds amongst Indonesian liberals, western academics, and journalists on social media.

This speech started off with the usual motherhood statements about creating a fair and prosperous nation, ‘respected’ by its peers and where ‘our wealth can be enjoyed by all of the people’—all standard Prabowo talking points.

But after being interrupted by an ad break, the candidate returned to deliver a crescendo of ‘nationalist’ rhetoric, punctuated with outbursts from the emcees. Here’s an English transcript for your convenience; in the footage above it begins at about the 8:35 mark (click here). After the eyebrow-raising middle section, he returned to the promises of economic development which make up the bulk of his stump speech (and which, to be fair, contain eloquent sections on economic justice which are more effective than anything the opposition has been able to offer). If you have any disagreements or suggestions regarding the translation, please get in touch.

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PRABOWO: [broadcast returns from ad break]…my commander died in my arms, saudara-saudara [brothers and sisters]. Took his last breath in my embrace, saudara-saudara. Because of this, all you that want Indonesia to remain poor, all of you who steal the people’s money—I will not waver in the face of you! [Emcee screams: Prabowo! Prabowo Hatta! Long Live Indonesia!]

[Prabowo’s raises his voice] If you all say that the Indonesian nation can be bought, I say it cannot be bought!…[Emcees yell ‘Prabowooo!’ and ‘cannot be bought!’]…If you all want to curang [commit fraud, to trick], saudara-saudara, I say ‘go ahead’, and watch—watch!—what will be done by the Indonesian people!…[Cheers, emcee: Prabowoooo! Prabowo-Hattaaaa!]

Beware all you foreign stooges! All you who can only slander, can only insult people, but have never never defended the people, never gave thought to the people, never gave thought to the poor, who only at election time pretend to care for the people…[cheers]…as Javanese people would say akeh nek ngono [roughly: ‘plenty of those around’]. Nek ngono, akeh, saudara-saudara.

Do you think that the Indonesian nation is one that can be lied to continually? Do you think political parties, one two three, can be bought just like that, saudara-saudara?…[emcee scream: Prabowooo!]…[Prabowo points to party officials behind him] here are the parties than can’t be bought, saudara-saudara! These are the political parties that cannot be bought, saudara-saudara! [More screams from emcee: Prabowo! Prabowo-Hatta! Indonesia! Convince us, Pak Prabowo, the Indonesian people can’t be bought!]. The Betawi people say: enter jual, ane beli [you sell, I buy].

Saudara-saudara, our struggle is right! Our struggle is right! We struggle for justice, we struggle for an Indonesia which is respected, we struggle [Prabowo losing his composure] for an Indonesia which can stand on its own feet!…[cheers, more screams from emcee]…we do not waver [tidak gentar] in the face of the akal-akalan [machinations, subterfuge] which you make! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR! TIDAK GENTAR!…[cheers, emcee screams].

Beware all you who are used to stealing the Indonesian people’s money—I don’t need to name them one by one, but when the time comes, if necessary, I will name them, saudara-[inaudible]…beware all of you who have a vision of an Indonesia broken apart, of a poor Indonesia, we say: no! This time, NO!…[emcee yells]…Indonesia wants to rise up, saudara-saudara…the Indonesian people want justice, the Indonesian people want a leader who is clean, who doesn’t pretend to be merakyat [of the people, down to earth] yet steal the people’s money!…[cheers; emcee: ‘theives! thieves!’]

Saudara-saudara…shall I keep going? [crowd, emcee: keep going! Medan has waited a long time for you!]…I want a coffee first…[Prabowo takes a cup of coffee presented to him by an aide, he drinks; emcee: Prabowooo! Prabowo-Hatta! Indonesia!]…beware you all…[Prabowo is still drinking his coffee, one of the emcees leads the crowd in a patriotic song].

[Ad break]

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Anybody taken aback by the content and delivery of Prabowo’s speech in Medan should know that it wasn’t an instance of the candidate deviating from his talking points. This sort of thing has been part of Prabowo’s stump speech for months. Passionate as he obviously is about Indonesia’s economic development and uplifting the poor, it says something about his frame of mind that the only time he gets so worked up as to lose his composure is when he’s talking about some devious clique of unnamed ‘others’ who conspire to exploit the national wealth and cheat the Indonesian people.

What’s interesting is that he never makes it explicit who he’s talking about. It’s left for the audience to decide who the bad guy is based on their own personal animosities: Jokowi, Americans, the Chinese, Jews, George Soros—I mean, take your pick, they’re all available to be drafted into your lurid conspiracy theory.

We can’t know whether Prabowo’s campaign rhetoric reflects his own feelings towards foreigners and Indonesia’s position vis a vis the world. But let’s be clear: while you have to sit through a lot of vacuous jingoism from all political candidates, no serious candidate for national office gives voice to Indonesian nationalism’s paranoid and xenophobic streaks like Prabowo does—and nobody does it with such force. It’s dog-whistle politics through and through.

The pro-business cosmopolitan who can ‘knock Indonesia together’ is the one who shows up to events at posh Jakarta hotels with diplomats and investors. The fist-shaking demagogue is the one who appears in front of the voters. It’s important that foreigners tempted to see Prabowo as the leader Indonesia needs understand just how different these two personas are, and ponder which one will come to the fore if Prabowo is elected president.

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Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.