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Indonesia: Populism fails...for now

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COMMENTS

7 July 2009 14:28

Edward Aspinall is a Senior Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University and coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia magazine.

The first round of Indonesia’s presidential elections will be held tomorrow. The ultimate outcome appears in little doubt, and the main question for now is whether the incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will defeat his rivals in just one round.

But the dominance of SBY, as he is known, has masked a new political development. In previous post-Suharto elections, parties and candidates largely appealed to cultural identity and personal image. Policy was not prominent. This year, there has been striking concentration on economic issues and furious debate about topics like neo-liberalism, foreign control of the economy, national debt and economic nationalism. A new populist mood is stalking Indonesia.

The key actor initiating this shift was not one of the presidential candidates, but Megawati Soekarnoputri’s running mate, Prabowo Subianto (left). Formerly (before a divorce) the son-in-law of president Suharto and once notorious as the commander of the army’s special forces and accused of various human rights abuses, this year he has tried to engineer a political comeback.

Using a fiery style of oratory that, to many people, is reminiscent of Indonesia’s great nationalist leader and first president, Sukarno, and using his family’s riches to fund slickly produced television advertisements, Prabowo has hammered on themes like the plight of the poor, the country’s national debt, rising consumer prices and the need for Indonesia to stand strongly on its own feet.

Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, 'neo-liberalism' became the new dirty word in Indonesia’s political lexicon. SBY’s choice of Boediono (the central bank governor and a leading Western-trained technocrat) as his running mate sharpened the debate, and soon both men were forced to defend their government’s record and explain that the degree of state intervention in the economy meant that it was by no means neo-liberal.

During the last decade there have been many experiments with populist leadership across the developing world, typically combining authoritarian political control with pro-poor and nationalist economic policies. Leftist versions, like those of Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, predominate in Latin America, but the world has seen plenty of right-wing versions, too, such as Thaksin Shinawatra, who built his immense popularity with rural Thais by way of credit schemes and health care programs. A few years ago, it seemed that in Indonesia the most likely sort of populist challenge would come from Islamist parties appealing to the urban poor. But the Prabowo challenge suggests that more conventional forms of third-worldist populism retain considerable potency.

For now, the challenge has failed, as SBY’s huge lead in opinion polls suggests. Some Indonesians still have doubts about Prabowo’s human rights record. His elite pedigree and immense personal wealth did not help him build an image of sympathy for the poor. More importantly, most Indonesians are satisfied with SBY’s government and his handling of the economy and governmental reform. So far, Indonesia has escaped the worst of the global recession: GDP in the first quarter grew by 4.4%, unlike the dramatic decline in Malaysia and Thailand.

As Marcus Mietzner has argued in a recent Lowy paper, SBY has not been above dabbling in populist policies himself, especially by way of a program that gives direct cash grants to the poor. However, Indonesia is a country with strong nationalist traditions and a large gap between rich and poor. These conditions are likely to breed more anti-establishment populism in the future. It’s also unlikely we’ve seen the last of Prabowo Subianto.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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