Two countries, two elections

India is not the only populous and diverse Asian country to be gearing up for elections later this year. Its maritime neighbour, Indonesia, will also hold parliamentary elections in April, followed by presidential polls in July. Compared to India, Indonesia is a young democracy.

The election this year will be the country’s fourth since the downfall of military dictator, Suharto, in 1998. Democracy has nonetheless taken firm root in this sprawling archipelago and elections here have the same chaotic and exuberant timbre that characterises polls in India.

The parallels between the two countries do not end here. Elections in both nations look set to feature a political googly in the form of Arvind Kejriwal in India, and Joko Widodo in Indonesia. Both these leaders have stirred up the electoral pot, and represent a break from the standard establishment-politician, whom the public has grown increasingly disenchanted with. Both Mr. Kejriwal and Jokowi (as Mr. Widodo is universally called) are political outsiders, known for their personal integrity, and anti-corruption crusading zeal. They both represent a newly engaged electorate that senses in them the possibility of political renewal and a break from the tired, venal, dynastic politics of the past.

Like Mr. Kejriwal, Jokowi is an aam aadmi. Son of a carpenter, Mr. Widodo is slightly-built and humble, and wildly popular as the Governor of Jakarta. He burst upon the political scene in 2005, when he was elected mayor of the mid-sized Javanese city of Solo. Formerly a furniture businessman, Jokowi successfully transformed what was then a crime-ridden city into a regional centre for arts and culture.

He campaigned against corruption and went as far as to refuse a government salary for his job as mayor. He enacted several pro-poor policies, including ones that helped rehabilitate the city’s street vendors, and earned a reputation for mediation. In 2009, Jokowi was re-elected as Solo’s mayor with an unprecedented 90 per cent vote share.

His second tenure in Solo was cut short when he was asked by his party leader to stand for Jakarta Governor in 2012, a post he won easily. Although Jokowi is yet to hold any national office, all major polls show him as the frontrunner in the elections, were he to stand.

And it is here that one of the crucial differences with Mr. Kejriwal becomes clear.

Unlike Mr. Kejriwal, Jokowi does not front his own political party, and is beholden to Indonesia’s grand-old nationalist party, the PDI-P (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia–Perjuangan). The PDI-P is embodied in its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of nationalist leader Sukarno, the first President of independent Indonesia.

The PDI-P has essentially functioned as the vessel for the Sukarno family’s political ambitions. The identification between the family and the party is akin to the Gandhi/Nehru-Congress nexus.

Therefore, despite the polls indicating that Ms. Megawati has virtually no hope of winning the upcoming elections (she lost in both 2004 and 2009), she remains loath to give up control and hand over the Presidential ticket to Jokowi. Her final decision is expected to be announced after the parliamentary elections in April, but it is widely reported that she might try and stand herself, again, with Jokowi on the vice-presidential ticket to boost her electability.

While Mr. Kejriwal might also come to depend on outside support from the Congress, as he currently does in Delhi, the AAP leader is not subject in the same way to the whims and fancies of the Congress’s leading family. But, on the other hand, unlike Jokowi, Mr. Kejriwal has no track record at all in politics. Nor has he shown the Indonesian’s ability to mediate and strike compromises between different political stakeholders, yet.

Mr. Kejriwal and Jokowi are both potential party poopers for rival candidates who would have been clear frontrunners in their absence: Narendra Modi in the Indian case and Prabowo Subianto in the Indonesian.

Mr. Modi and Mr. Prabowo have some commonalities as well. They stand accused of human rights abuses in the past. They are strongmen who appeal to voters desirous of the steady hand of authority at the centre, believing decisive leadership to hold the answers to the myriad woes faced by their nations.

Until the Jokowi wild card cropped up, Mr. Prabowo, who leads his own political party, Gerindra, had been the favourite for President.

This is despite the allegations levelled against him of human rights violations during his years, in the late 1990s, as the general in charge of the Indonesian military’s elite special forces unit, Kopassus, which is known to have kidnapped and tortured political dissidents at the time.

Although never charged with wrongdoing, a military commission dismissed him from the army on the grounds of his having “exceeded orders.” And like Mr. Modi, Mr. Prabowo continues to face a travel ban to the United States. Asked last year how he would handle the travel restrictions if elected President, Mr. Prabowo wryly answered: “I will send my Vice-President to Washington. I can always visit Beijing.”

One major difference between Mr. Modi and Mr. Prabowo lies in the latter’s overt commitment to religious and cultural plurality. He has been carefully cultivating the powerful Indonesian-Chinese vote, a diaspora that has been the subject of pogroms in the past. He is also avowedly anti-Islamist, and has argued that only he has the ability to keep Islamic fundamentalists, in this Muslim majority country, in check.

But, in fact, political parties with an explicit Islamic agenda have consistently underperformed in Indonesian politics. The combined vote share of all Islamist parties in Indonesia dropped to 29.2 per cent in the 2009 elections, down from 41 per cent in 2004. Most analysts do not see the Islamist parties improving their electoral fortunes this year, regardless of the outcome of the presidential race.

What’s clear is that the 2014 elections need to be closely watched in both India and Indonesia for their potential to change the tried-tested-and-failed politics of the entrenched political elite.

If Mr. Kejriwal pulls off a coup in India, it will signal to Indonesia the real possibility of an aam aadmi-led change from below; a phenomenon most Indonesians are hungry for.

On the other hand, if Jokowi emerges the next Indonesian President, it should serve as a wake-up call to the Congress party about how to effect a transition from a dynastic fiefdom to a relatively democratic and egalitarian organisation. For the Congress, as for the PDI-P, this may well turn out to be an existential imperative.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 3:30:56 AM |

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