Nostalgia for the New Order may drive middle class to Prabowo

JAKARTA, June 29 — The neck and neck race for the presidency this year has been unanticipated by many observers of Indonesian politics in a couple of different ways. 

Firstly, not many pundits foresaw that incessant smear campaigns against early front-runner Joko Widodo would narrow his lead over Prabowo Subianto in just a little over two months.

Secondly, and most interestingly, despite Prabowo’s populist campaign — with its simplistic and jingoistic message — he has appealed to more urban middle class voters than to the rural voters he set out to woo.
Instead, “Jokowi” — who projects a new kind of bottom-up leadership and whose message promotes a merit-based society boosted by hard-work ethics that should resonate with the educated working class — has a bigger following at the grass root level.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto arrives to meet members of Banser, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) while campaigning in Mojokerto, East Java, June 24, 2014. — Picture by Reuters
Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto arrives to meet members of Banser, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) while campaigning in Mojokerto, East Java, June 24, 2014. — Picture by Reuters

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This, of course, does not include a large part of the intellectual elites and the creative community, who naturally lean towards Jokowi, thanks to Prabowo’s chequered track record of human rights abuse allegations and the controversial figures in his coalition.

The two candidates run on similar populist platforms, though presented differently. Jokowi’s detailed but convoluted 42- page platform generally offers more concrete and diverse programmes than Prabowo’s 9-page vision and missions.

But who are we kidding? This election has never been about programmes. It is always about personality. And with less than two weeks till the election, the picture reveals what kind of leaders appeal to different sections of the Indonesian society.

Three popularity polls released by three independent institutes this week showed that Jokowi still led Prabowo by a 7 to 9 per cent margin.

In all the three surveys, the undecided make up 16 to 23 per cent of the voters. This is a huge number that may determine the winner of the election, and that may as well go the Prabowo way, unless there is a concerted effort by Jokowi to stop his opponent’s upward momentum. 

“There is now about 14 to 16 per cent of undecided voters,” Jokowi told a group of supporters in an event he held for netizens on Thursday night.

“We had studied them, and 60 per cent of them turn out to be young voters from middle to upper middle class,” he said.

Support from public figures and the creative community has been overwhelmingly for him, resulting in various initiatives by volunteers but Jokowi’s statement underlines a concern also shared by his supporters.

Tobias Basuki, a researcher for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said its popularity poll held before the April 9 Legislative Election showed Jokowi led Prabowo across all demographics. However, later polls showed that the middle class (those with more than Rp 2 million or RM533 in monthly income and with a university degree) is shifting their support for Prabowo.

Early surveys conducted by CSIS and several credible polling bodies showed that swing voters made up 20 to 30 per cent of those sampled.

“The smear campaign has a significant effect of delivering the swing voters’ support for Prabowo by 10 to 15 per cent,” said Tobias.

According to the surveys, voters who graduated from high school and university are more likely to vote for Prabowo, while those with primary school-level of education largely support Jokowi. Voters in the urban areas also support Prabowo more than Jokowi.

Tobias attributed the middle class’ leaning towards Prabowo to an apparent longing for the New Order’s style stability, especially as democratisation is not seen as having been able to curb corruption, and instead helped made it widespread and uncontrollable.

Prabowo’s image as a firm leader alludes to the New Order style of leadership, reminiscent of the 32-year-long strong man Suharto. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s “man of the people” approach might be too radical a change for them.

“Our middle-class society is still hierarchical and feudalistic. They think a leader must look and act like someone above their reach,” said Tobias.

Prabowo has initially adopted the appearance of fiery founding president Sukarno, the late father of Megawati Sukarnoputri who is the matriarch of Jokowi’s party. But recently he has played up the New Order factor more, including vowing to make a national hero out of Suharto, who was ousted in 1998 following days of student protests and social unrests.

In fact, the latest smear campaign against Jokowi is a reminder of the manner of discrediting people in the Suharto era. According to the latest mudslinging narrative, Jokowi is a communist who hailed from a communist family.

Like the previous accusation that he was a Catholic ethnic Chinese, this, too, is unfounded.

Tobias said these types of issues played into the fears of the highly conservative Muslims, including those in the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), one of the parties in the coalition that supports the Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa ticket.

“The smear campaign started out with racial and religious issues that always affect the PKS constituents, who are also mainly educated people,” he said.

Supports for the two candidates is also split along the gender divide. While Prabowo appeals more to male voters (4 per cent over Jokowi), Jokowi attracts 7 per cent more women than him.

Besides Prabowo’s hawkish gesturing, some of these men might be attracted to his militaristic campaign and the machismo attitude projected by some of his supporters.  One campaign piece turned into an international embarrassment last week, when a YouTube video commercial for Prabowo showed famous rock star Ahmad Dhani, dressed in Nazi-like regalia, singing a rip-off of Queen’s We Will Rock You. It led to Time calling it “one of the worst pieces of political campaigning ever”.

Jokowi is actually backed by a bevy of highly creative and multimedia savvy volunteers who produce games, apps, animation, comic books and music. But their good works are often lost in the sea of nasty rumours on Twitter, hoax news items and doctored pictures that tarnish Jokowi’s image.

Even when former military commander Wiranto revealed to the press that Prabowo had been dismissed from the Army because he was found guilty of kidnapping pro-democracy activists, many of his supporters get the latter’s version of the story, including from news websites, newspapers and the three TV stations owned by members of coalition.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with fire fighting this whole time,” one of his aides told me.

“But, what can we do? Jokowi doesn’t want to attack.”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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