For many years I have been a member of Columbia University’s Southeast Asia seminar, a fantastic group of scholars, writers, and a few private sector representatives. We recently hosted a young scholar from the Australian National University, Marcus Mietzner, who has lived in Indonesia and closely follows the development of political parties. Mietzner is very concerned that although political parties have begun to mature, they still have a long way to go to operate as full representatives of the aspirations of their members. Compared to other emerging democracies, Indonesia’s is doing fairly well. Surveys indicate that people are still very confident of democracy as the their form of government, and as might be expected, since 1998, less identify with a political party. Voter turnouts remain high, above 70%, but Islam has become a dividing line among parties and within parties. Parties differ in how strong a role Islam should play in public life.
The most pressing issue for Indonesia, according Mietzner, is party financing. Up until 2005, the Indonesian government still appropriated funds to help parties with organizing their infrastructure for the large increase in the number of local direct elections. Since then, the government has severely cut its support, and parties are now plagued by the outsized influence of wealthy patrons or the corruption of party leaders steering projects or government funds to party campaign funds. President Yudhoyono is thought to have agreed to reinstate the party subsidy program but because his own party would be a leading beneficiary he backed away from the plan.
The Next President of Indonesia ?
Mietzner asked a question that many Indonesians have been asking me recently: Is the US ready for Prabowo (a former top general and son-in-law of Suharto) as Indonesia’s next President ? Prabowo tops most polls with 20% of the vote and is considered decisive and disciplined, the type of President many Indonesians say they would like. But although his countrymen may overlook allegations of human rights abuses when he was an Army commander, US leaders in Congress may not. Some have told me that he may be on a “do not enter” list.
Indonesia’s first civilian Minister of Defense, Dr. Juwono Sudarsono, told Stanley Weiss, the head of Business Executives for National Security that “Prabowo leads the pack because he projects grit, firm leadership and decisiveness–which are seen to be lacking in our current leadership.” In a September 2012 Huffington Post piece, Weiss recalls a conversation at the White House with General Wayne Downing, a top counter-terrorism official in the Bush Administration and a long time instructor of foreign soldiers at Fort Bragg who said “Of all the foreign soldiers he ever trained, two stood out. One was Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the reigning King of Jordan. The other was Prabowo Subianto.”
There is a long way to go until the Presidential elections next year. First the country must go through Parliamentary elections. From those numbers, it will be clear which parties can nominate candidates. The current system is that a political party must have members and offices in all Indonesia’s provinces and achieve a certain threshold of seats in Parliament to nominate a Presidential candidate. It is unlikely that Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, can nominate him on his own and they are seeking alliances with other larger parties. Also, the slump in party identification among voters always leaves room for a “dark horse” candidate. Even more popular than Prabowo in some current polls is the Governor of Jakarta, Jokowi, who is not currently a declared candidate. Others will no doubt come forward in the months ahead. For Mietzner and the legions of political observers of Indonesia, 2013-2014 will be a busy year.