The ‘Military Strongman’ Vs ‘The Man of the People’ – A Tired Narrative

In reading foreign coverage of the presidential election campaign I’ve increasingly seen descriptions of potentially two very different Indonesia’s emerging under two “very different” leaders. Coverage from expat journalists out of Jakarta is inevitably following the same tired narrative of an election between the ‘Military Strongman’ and the ‘Man of the People’, images that have, in fact, been constructed and exploited by strategists and marketeers from each candidate’s election campaign team.

At the moment, polls are showing an increase in the popularity of Prabowo, whose controversial human rights record from his years as a general has not seemed to be a major problem in the election race.

As Asia Sentinel reported, “with very few policy differences between the two campaigns, the more potent factor in Prabowo’s favor seems to be a rising perception that he looks more like a “leader” than Joko”. Or as Dr Dave McRae pointed out on Election Watch:

“At a fundamental level, Indonesians face a choice between a president who promises to govern with them, and one who would govern over them. Neither candidate is concealing this choice – it is fundamental to their respective image and appeal.

Whereas Jokowi is a product of Indonesia’s democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Prabowo is firmly part of the authoritarian-era establishment”.


The Prabowo appeal is causing many Western commentators to wring their hands, and for good reasons. I’ve been following coverage from the Australian National University’s New Mandela website with articles written by very well qualified and respected academics, but all of the articles have also followed the same tired “goodie vs baddie” narrative, with less analysis of the electoral appeal of the leader than I would have liked to have seen.

Whilst I have absolutely no hard data about the reasons behind the emerging poll trends in favour of Prabowo, during this election period I have asked Prabowo many supporters about why they support him, despite his shady past. The reasons they cite are usually the following: A) Whilst they like Jokowi, they feel he is not ready for the role B) Prabowo represents a strong leadership figure C) They don’t like Jokowi’s running mate, former President Megawati D) Indonesia needs a more authoritarian government and E) With the exception of Gus Dur, they are exceedingly dissapointed with Indonesia’s Presidents following the fall of Suharto, and feel that democracy did little to change Indonesia’s situation for the better F) They don’t know “who’s interests” are behind Jokowi.

This discusion of the so-called “interests” behind Jokowi has probably come from some of the smear campaign tactics we have seen emerge of late, claiming Jokowi is a “Secret Christian/Chinese/American lackey”. The conspiracy theories abound, and it will be interesting to eventually see who was behind this election tactic. But back to the point..

Whilst I have not heard one Indonesian say they would like to go back to a military dictatorship, and this is about perception over reality, many Prabowo voters also say that they feel Indonesian democracy has served the interest of the elite more than anyone.

From what I have gathered through everyday conversations, it seems some supporters of the Prabowo camp represent a section of Indonesian society fondly remember the certainty and prosperity of life under a military dictatorship. Whilst other supporters, particularly the younger ones, explain that they look to Prabowo as a leader capable of making hard decisions and leading Indonesia from the top down.

Consequently, the Indonesian people are not choosing between vastly different candidates on a policy basis. There aren’t actually major differences between the two candidates on a policy basis. Indonesians are choosing between two opposing regimes which represent vastly different views on the role of the president and his relationship with the nation. And of late, that appeal is to the leader with a well-constructed-by-the-PR-team “tough man” image.

Indonesia’s Aspirationals

The world seems to be placing it’s hopes for the development and democratisation of Indonesia on the shoulders of the growth of the country’s growing middle class. But within some members of this emerging group there lingers an inegalitarian culture reflective of New Order and late-colonial notions of elitism, a patronising classism antipathetic to democratic values, and a burning desire to own a sedan and a live-in $150 a-month maid. 

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Jakarta’s slums and the place of residence of many of Jakarta’s poor working class. Photo Businessweek.com

Those that live in Jakarta will have noticed the occasional snobbery and anti-egalitarianism of some of the middle class and orang kaya baru crowd (the new rich, who aren’t actually “rich” at all). As Indonesia’s middle class emerged in the 1990s, some hoped that the issues of the redistribution of wealth in society would become a point of interest for the class. It clearly hasn’t. In fact the markers of inequality are ironically more distinct than ever.

I sometimes chat with the pembantu (housemaids) of the apartment complex where I live in Jakarta as I get breakfast on my way out into Jakarta’s mind boggling traffic in the morning (made worse daily by the increasing numbers of sedans on the raod). They gather in the sun to nurse the babies of their middle-class employees downstairs while their boss sits idly nearby playing with their smartphone, probably tweeting about politics, poverty, environmentalism or democracy.

I asked one of the young pembantu what she thought about the upcoming last week, to which she replied “I voted for the party my boss asked me to vote for because I don’t undestand”, at which I choked a little on my gorengan and replied with a polite but loaded “good”. Another said her boss said it wasn’t important for her to vote and that they needed her to stay at home to look after their (overpampered brat of a) child.

People pay their pembantu between $50 and $200 a month here. They are a symbol of status and as having made it as a middle-class Indonesian. They are live in maids, who usually live a converted laundry-like room at the back of the house or on the floor of the ‘loungeroom’ of the box-like apartments Jakarta’s middle class increasingly favour.

The apartment complex where I live is chock full of middle class Indonesians who perceive themselves to have made it, simply because they live in an ‘apartment’ which is actually more like a broom closet. But hey., they can say they live in an apartment with a pembantu to trail behind the while they wander aimlessly around the mall downstairs.

Meet Indonesia’s aspirational middle class. Indonesia is big, but it’s growing economy is bigger. Indonesia is the world’s 16th largest economy (Australia is 12th), and the transition of millions of Indonesians out of poverty into a middle or ‘consuming class’ is a big part of that growth story.

But, the reality is, this emerging middle class is actually still very poor. But this class cherish the class markers that distinguish them from their “lower class” fellow Indonesians.

The so-called consuming class commentators are getting so excited about is comprised of households with earnings of just US$7500 per year at purchasing power parity rates. But that’s still enough to afford a broom closet apartment and a live in maid (God knows where these poor girls sleep. Sometimes they go home to the slum areas of Jakarta each night by the rivers or under the highway toll bridges).

The world is cheering on Indonesia’s emerging middle class as the potential flagbearers of Indonesia’s democracy, but this society still has a long way to go with it’s dated notions of elitism and the illusions of prosperity propped up by an atrocious lack of economic equality and a class of working poor living on less than $2 a day.

This post has also appeared as an article in The Stand