The ‘Military Strongman’ Vs ‘The Man of the People’ – A Tired Narrative

In reading foreign coverage of the presidential election campaign I’ve increasingly seen descriptions of potentially two very different Indonesia’s emerging under two “very different” leaders. Coverage from expat journalists out of Jakarta is inevitably following the same tired narrative of an election between the ‘Military Strongman’ and the ‘Man of the People’, images that have, in fact, been constructed and exploited by strategists and marketeers from each candidate’s election campaign team.

At the moment, polls are showing an increase in the popularity of Prabowo, whose controversial human rights record from his years as a general has not seemed to be a major problem in the election race.

As Asia Sentinel reported, “with very few policy differences between the two campaigns, the more potent factor in Prabowo’s favor seems to be a rising perception that he looks more like a “leader” than Joko”. Or as Dr Dave McRae pointed out on Election Watch:

“At a fundamental level, Indonesians face a choice between a president who promises to govern with them, and one who would govern over them. Neither candidate is concealing this choice – it is fundamental to their respective image and appeal.

Whereas Jokowi is a product of Indonesia’s democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Prabowo is firmly part of the authoritarian-era establishment”.


The Prabowo appeal is causing many Western commentators to wring their hands, and for good reasons. I’ve been following coverage from the Australian National University’s New Mandela website with articles written by very well qualified and respected academics, but all of the articles have also followed the same tired “goodie vs baddie” narrative, with less analysis of the electoral appeal of the leader than I would have liked to have seen.

Whilst I have absolutely no hard data about the reasons behind the emerging poll trends in favour of Prabowo, during this election period I have asked Prabowo many supporters about why they support him, despite his shady past. The reasons they cite are usually the following: A) Whilst they like Jokowi, they feel he is not ready for the role B) Prabowo represents a strong leadership figure C) They don’t like Jokowi’s running mate, former President Megawati D) Indonesia needs a more authoritarian government and E) With the exception of Gus Dur, they are exceedingly dissapointed with Indonesia’s Presidents following the fall of Suharto, and feel that democracy did little to change Indonesia’s situation for the better F) They don’t know “who’s interests” are behind Jokowi.

This discusion of the so-called “interests” behind Jokowi has probably come from some of the smear campaign tactics we have seen emerge of late, claiming Jokowi is a “Secret Christian/Chinese/American lackey”. The conspiracy theories abound, and it will be interesting to eventually see who was behind this election tactic. But back to the point..

Whilst I have not heard one Indonesian say they would like to go back to a military dictatorship, and this is about perception over reality, many Prabowo voters also say that they feel Indonesian democracy has served the interest of the elite more than anyone.

From what I have gathered through everyday conversations, it seems some supporters of the Prabowo camp represent a section of Indonesian society fondly remember the certainty and prosperity of life under a military dictatorship. Whilst other supporters, particularly the younger ones, explain that they look to Prabowo as a leader capable of making hard decisions and leading Indonesia from the top down.

Consequently, the Indonesian people are not choosing between vastly different candidates on a policy basis. There aren’t actually major differences between the two candidates on a policy basis. Indonesians are choosing between two opposing regimes which represent vastly different views on the role of the president and his relationship with the nation. And of late, that appeal is to the leader with a well-constructed-by-the-PR-team “tough man” image.

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