‘Worse than Terrorism’

Inside the thug groups, dirty tactics, and the dark arts that will decide Indonesia's election.


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Since the beginning of the campaign season, 53-year-old Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, the frontrunner in Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election, has woken up to the news that he is Chinese, Christian — and dead. He is, unsurprisingly, none of those things.

The fake death notice distributed on social networks earlier this year was the first in a string of smears. A May 5 tabloid created especially for the election featured a story with the headline "Jokowi Chinese Boy" — claiming that the candidate used the non-Chinese name Jokowi as a "disguise" because of his political and financial interests.

In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, where there is underlying resentment of the often-wealthier ethnic Chinese minority, the rumors have been deeply detrimental. In March, Jokowi had a 30 percent lead against his only opponent, 62-year-old former army general Prabowo Subianto. Yet in the face of a withering smear campaign allegedly implemented by Prabowo supporters, Jokowi has since watched his advantage dwindle to single digits, according to a June poll by the Australian research firm Roy Morgan. "It’s worse than terrorism," says Ginato, a spokesperson for Jokowi’s Democratic Party of Struggle. "It just raises emotions and creates chaos."

On Wednesday, some 190 million voters will head to the polls to determine the next head of state of the world’s third-largest democracy. There are many concerns voters could focus on in the election. While Indonesia’s economy has grown steadily in recent years, economic growth has slowed to 5.8 percent in 2013 and some 32 million people still live below the poverty line. Indonesia’s constitution largely protects religious freedom, yet in recent years attacks on Christians and minority Muslim sects have been on the rise. The country also faces significant environmental concerns, failing to properly regulate and police its logging, fishing, and extractive industries. Yet the ballot, the third direct presidential election since the fall of longtime military ruler Suharto in 1998, has largely been framed in the context of a potential revival of Indonesia’s authoritarian past. Though the country is now a functioning democracy with a free press and strong civil society, its political institutions are still steeped in the personnel and politics that defined the old order.

Indonesian analysts and commentators have cast this election — which pits Jokowi, a reformer and relative outsider to Jakarta’s oligarchical-style politics, against Prabowo, a wealthy former general accused of ordering the kidnapping of activists and orchestrating human rights abuses in East Timor in the 1990s — as a chance to make a clean break from this past.

It is a hard legacy to shake. The campaigning has been colorful and creative: Rallies often have a festival atmosphere, invariably featuring raunchy dancers, theatrical costumes, and pop stars. But as the race heated up, it grew increasingly dirty. Jokowi supporters have accused Prabowo’s camp of using village-level military officers to canvass voters door-to-door and employing thugs to break up gatherings of pro-Jokowi supporters. A social organization established by a gangster with well-known ties to Prabowo has reportedly been employed across the country to hand out cash and food to the poor and influence voters on Prabowo’s behalf, a claim the candidate’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) denies. "We are in the front row in restraining the military and the police from getting involved in politics," retired Gen. Sudrajat, a Gerindra spokesperson, told Foreign Policy.

Until political unrest forced him to concede power in 1998, Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years, a period characterized by corruption, repression, and brutality — including purges in the mid-1960s that claimed an estimated 500,000 lives. Figures that have links to the country’s authoritarian past continue to dominate Indonesia’s political institutions. A significant number of influential political figures, including the outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, rose to prominence during the Suharto era. Some of these individuals retain connections with well-known thug groups — ostensibly religious or social networks that have a reputation for sporadic violence.

Prabowo, who was briefly married to Suharto’s daughter Titiek, is very much a product of this world. The son of a cabinet minister in the administrations of Suharto and his predecessor Sukarno, Prabowo spent 18 years in the army and commanded Indonesian special forces from 1994 until he was dismissed in 1998 for ordering the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists. (Prabowo has reportedly been banned from entering the United States because of his alleged human rights record.) The former general lived in Jordan in self-imposed exile for several years before returning to Indonesia in 2000 to launch his political career.

For some, despite his record, Prabowo’s association with Indonesia’s traditional politics appeals. A poster child for the old guard, Prabowo has allegedly employed the intimidation tactics that define this era in his quest for the presidency — and built a successful campaign around the enduring affinity among voters for a political strongman. "If you are from the military, you have the discipline, you are firm," says South Jakarta woman and Prabowo supporter Bondan Emi, 49, who works with a tourism consultancy company.

Prabowo’s campaigns are a production of military imagery. At a rally on March 23, he flew in on a private helicopter and then mounted a thoroughbred horse. Donning the white shirt and black fez favored by Sukarno, he proceeded past a marching band, his party’s paramilitary troops, and thousands of supporters in the stands. (Prabowo has pledged to make the former dictator Suharto a national hero if elected.)

Jokowi represents a very different approach. The former entrepreneur was born of humble means in Solo, a town in Indonesia’s most populous island of Java. He served as mayor of Solo for seven years before being elected Jakarta governor in September 2012. In Jakarta, Jokowi gained a large following for his impromptu visits to government agencies, as well as to poorer neighborhoods to discuss problems directly with local residents.

At a June 26 rally in Jakarta, Jokowi tied a white anti-corruption banner around his forehead and stepped down from the stage to address the crowd at ground level, warning against the ills of so-called "money politics," vote buying, and electoral fraud. (The NGO Transparency International ranks Indonesia 114th out of 177 countries on their global corruption perceptions index.)

"He is humble and close to the people," says schoolteacher Slamet Riyadi, 28, on the sidelines of the rally, "So many people like him. Jokowi is running for president, not because he wants to, but because he was asked to by the people and his party." 

But Jokowi’s camp has also courted questionable figures from the Suharto days. Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, who served as intelligence chief from 2001 to 2004 and now works on Jokowi’s campaign team, recently declared that Prabowo was "mentally disturbed." Claiming that he had access to Prabowo’s past psychological test results, Hendropriyono alleged that Prabowo was "no longer an emotional person but a psychopath."

And Jokowi’s running mate Jusuf Kalla has raised concerns for comments in the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing. Footage in the documentary, shot when Kalla served as vice president from 2004 to 2009, shows him telling a well-known thug group Pemuda Pancasila that, "We [Indonesia] need gangsters to get things done."

Jokowi initially declined to attack Prabowo for his reported associations with thugs or the allegedly high number of corrupt elites in his coalition. But in the final presidential debate on July 5, he drew plaudits from commentators for coming out as "tegas," or firm, a quality that many believe has been missing throughout his campaign. Jokowi told viewers that "interested parties" were blocking the country’s democratic progress, and that his presidency would be premised on "a coalition without conditions."

In Indonesia, this qualifies as a big deal. A leader refusing to trade ministerial posts for coalition support, or court corrupt elites, could have resounding implications in Indonesia’s graft-ridden parliament. Following his 2012 election, for example, government officials in Jakarta have been afraid to accept bribes for fear they will get "Jokowi-ed."

But Jokowi, who seemingly took the high road for much of the campaign, may not get a chance to clean up Indonesian politics. "I don’t know why," says Prabowo supporter and South Jakarta resident Emi, "but I like someone with a militaristic mentality."

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