Presidential election in Indonesia: Mudslinging at its worst

MAY 11 — One glance and the picture looks like just another memorial advertisement in a newspaper, bearing the name and information of the deceased and his survivors.

The accompanying mugshot, however, was that of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, a frontrunner in Indonesia’s presidential election. The name, however, was written as Herbertus Joko Widodo (Oey Hong Liong), complete with Chinese characters, as is common in memorial ads of Chinese Indonesians.

The ad became viral quickly, spread via Blackberry messages, posted on Twitter and Facebook and analysed in private blogs. Along with it circulated a photo of a young Jokowi, as the governor is affectionately known, and his wife with a caption showing the same Chinese name.

The mock ad was clearly a jab at Jokowi’s Islamic credential, and the accompanying commentaries on blogs and tweets raised doubts over his religion, spreading rumours that he was a Christian who had converted to Islam for political gains.

Not only was this accusation ridiculous — no one I know takes it seriously — but it is also old and tiresome. A similar accusation was levelled against him ahead of the Jakarta governor election one and a half years ago, when he was running with his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), who is a Christian of ethnic Chinese origin.

This kind of racial and religious-tinged smear campaign is also not unique to him. During the 2009 presidential campaign, Vice President Boediono’s wife was accused of being a Christian, simply because she did not (and still does not) wear a headscarf. The issued died off soon after it was proven false.

“This is brutal, I don’t understand why they can’t find a smarter way (to campaign against me),” said Jokowi in response to the picture.

It’s unclear how much of this latest attack on Jokowi will affect support for him, but at the least it sows seeds of doubts among potential voters who are easily swayed when it comes to religious issues.

With the July 9 presidential election likely to feature two leading candidates, Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto, Indonesians will likely be exposed to more mudslinging.

Earlier, text messages were circulated among teachers that Jokowi had said on a TV interview that if elected he would stop a teacher certification programme that qualifies them to receive government salaries due to budgeting issues. The source of this information was never found.

He was also accused of kowtowing to Western countries after his meetings with several ambassadors and of being financed by Christian businessmen.

All of the negative campaigns were presumably orchestrated by his opponents, hidden behind newly formed groups, or a band of social media users who execute the whispering campaigns (like the one that claims that leading American political strategist Stan Greenberg is behind Jokowi’s candidacy).

But some negative campaigns were more open. One TV ad featured footage of Jokowi campaigning and bore the message “Awaiting your promises.” The ad was aired on TV stations belonging to the MNC Group, whose owner Hary Tanoesoedibjo is a vice presidential candidate to Wiranto of the Hanura Party. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission eventually banned the ad because it was deemed an attack against Jokowi and an illegal use of Jokowi’s image, and because it does not show the name of the advertiser.

And then there were poems read by Prabowo and his Gerindra Party top honcho Fadli Zon that made some unsubtle references to the Governor, among them his being a “puppet leader” under the control of his puppeteer (a reference to Megawati Sukarnoputri, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle’s chairman).

Prabowo has also been an easy target for negative campaigns because of his rather chequered past that led to his discharge from military service. These accusations include the 1997 and 1998 abduction of pro-democracy activists by troops under his command, and his alleged involvement in the violence that led to the May riots (though the latter was never proven).

Prabowo’s divorce from his wife, the daughter of former president Suharto, and his reputed mercurial temperament also provide fodder for attacks against his character.

And an online article of dubious source quoted Prabowo as saying that “Indonesia was willing to regress 50 years, as long as rotten Chinese are kicked out of the country”, played into the pre-1998 reform movement suspicion of his hostility against the ethnic Chinese community, though he had made many attempts to prove otherwise.

Extensive social media activities have helped the distribution of whispering campaigns and mudslinging. Both candidates are supported by multiple teams of online troopers, some open and some shadowy.

Prabowo’s official Twitter handle @Prabowo08 has 708,000 followers, while Jokowi’s @jokowi_do2 has about 1.42 million followers. But beyond the official tweets and Facebook postings, there are numerous paid or volunteer buzzers, bloggers and people who provide online content and who trawl the social media to trigger discussions or respond to negative ones.

Negative campaigns are a common phenomenon even in more mature democracies, but campaigns with religious or racial overtones are bad for a diverse country like Indonesia, where the average level of education of voters is below junior high school.

“Our democracy is still in trial and error phase; nothing goes smoothly,” said political analyst Siti Zuhro.

“But if we don’t improve the political education of voters while at the same time fixing the electoral and party system, the political discussion will remain at a level of race and ethnicity, which will keep the nation segmented,” she said.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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