Conscience Vote: the human rights records of Indonesia’s presidential candidates

By Melissa Reid | 03 Apr 14
Indonesian flag painted on bricks

By Melissa Reid

Indonesia, one of Australia’s closest and largest neighbours, is approaching its third democratic elections. On 9 April, Indonesians will head to the polls for the legislative elections followed by the presidential elections on 9 July 2014. The Indonesian Parliament consists of 350 seats. For a party to nominate a presidential candidate, they must win 20 per cent of the seats in parliament or 25 per cent of valid votes in the legislative elections.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 saw the birth of democracy in Indonesia. Since this time, two election cycles have occurred both resulting in the Democratic Party’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono being elected President of the Republic of Indonesia. Indonesia boasts a population of 240 million across the Indonesian archipelago. The upcoming elections are of significant importance as the current President is required to step aside following the maximum of two terms at the helm.

It has been reported some Indonesian people are disillusioned with politics and with democracy more broadly, expressing disenchantment due to a real or perceived lack of progress to improve the lives of the Indonesian people. This is illustrated in that 27.4 per cent of eligible voters abstained from voting in the 2009 Presidential elections which Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won in a 93 per cent landslide. High profile corruption scandals have plagued the majority of political parties and many politicians have been accused of human rights violations committed under Suharto’s New Order.

Whilst some parties will await the results from the legislative elections prior to nominating their presidential candidates, some candidates are confirmed and here we look at the potential leaders and their commitment to, and history of, human rights.

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo
Governor of Jakarta, Peoples’ Democratic Party for Struggle

Joko Widodo, affectionately called “Jokowi” has been noted as the most popular and likely candidate to assume the presidency at the July elections. Jokowi, “Indonesia’s Obama” represents a fresh face to Indonesian politics. Unlike many of the other runners, Jokowi, at 52 years of age, possesses a youthfulness and vibrancy in part due to the outcomes achieved during his time as Governor of Jakarta. Jokowi makes public appearances at random, meeting and greeting with his constituents, which is uncommon amongst the majority of Indonesian politicians. A former businessman, Jokowi has no prior associations with the New Order under Suharto and has thus far not been embroiled in any corruption scandals or accused of human rights violations. However, his attempts to evict people from Pluit Dam in Northern Jakarta have been mentioned in a small number of reports, introducing a breeze of speculation about his actual commitment to the basic rights of the people of Jakarta.

Jokowi has been Governor of Jakarta since 2012. His short term as Governor has been raised by state officials and political personalities as being too short a period for him to be appropriately equipped to hold the highest position in the country.

Jokowi is highly popular amongst the people of Jakarta and the broader Indonesian population however his inexperience could be detrimental in his running for the presidency and potential running of the country.

Former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto
Gerindra (The Great Indonesia Movement Party)

“Pak” Prabowo Subianto is a very experienced politician and has a strong military career behind him coupled with a successful business career. Once the son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo’s military career was shaped in the late 1970s due, in part, to his efforts to eliminate Fretilin’s (the Timor-Leste political party) first President Nicolau do reis Lobato.

Prabowo has been plagued by accusations of human rights violations spanning his military career in Indonesia, Aceh and Timor Leste (East Timor). Prabowo has recently penned an open letter in response to these allegations in an effort to quash speculation he committed human rights abuses and war crimes in Timor Leste. Prabowo is also accused of rights abuses against student protesters. His association with, and role in the May 1998 riots in Jakarta which aided the demise of Suharto and his authoritarian regime conjures speculation regarding his human rights record.

None of the accusations that have plagued him since 1983 following the Krasas massacre in Timor Leste have been substantiated. Prabowo notes the accusations are “based on unproven allegations, innuendos and third hand reports”. Of late, Prabowo has undergone a transformation to re-brand himself as an anti-corruption campaigner. Unfortunately for him, the media has not run with this, instead focussing on his alleged role in serious human rights abuses. It appears the public is focussing on the latter as well.

Aburizal Bakrie
Chairperson, Golkar Party

Aburizal Bakrie, 67 year-old member of the Golkar Party, is experienced in both business and government as owner of the oil and gas company PT Lapindo Brantas. During his time in government, he has held the positions of Minister for the Economy and Minister for Welfare.

A recent survey of over 200 people including researchers, journalists and academics was conducted by the Setera Institute, Indonesia’s human rights watch dog. Survey results found that Bakrie, along with Prabowo, possessed the worst human rights records amongst all potential presidential candidates.

The 2006 Mudflow in East Java, which displaced thousands of people, was deemed a human rights violation by Komnas HAM, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights. PT Lapindo Brantas, and Bakrie through his association with the company, were found responsible for the disaster.

Bakrie is an experienced politician who can utilise that wisdom throughout his campaign and in his possible presidency. A key platform for Bakrie is law enforcement and security, having recently said “It’s not right if a law enforcer can’t shoot a criminal or a violent rioter because he fears he will be violating human rights … My point is that law enforcers must not be afraid of violating human rights. We have to maintain security and order.”

Chairperson, Peoples’ Conscience Party (Hanura)

Wiranto is no stranger to presidential campaigning, having run in both the 2004 and 2009 elections. Wiranto has a significant military career behind him, being the military commander under former President Suharto until the end of his reign. Wiranto as a candidate represents strength and security and this could positively aid his bid for presidency. However, his military history could hinder his presidential dreams due to his speculated associations with the violent response to student demonstrators and democracy activists, which resulted in a number of deaths and disappearances.

Attempts to quash opposition to Suharto’s New Order are not the only human rights abuse allegations that plague Wiranto. Following the 1999 East Timor independence referendum, violence ensued. Wiranto was accused of serious human rights infringements related to this violence for which he was indicted. The East Timor prosecutor general later cleared Wiranto of the indictment, however this has tainted his reputation and will likely follow him throughout his presidential election campaign.

Recent Violence

The three-week campaign period for the upcoming parliamentary elections commenced on 16 March. Whilst previous campaigns have largely been void of violence, the 2014 elections have already been subjected to uncharacteristic violent incidents. In Aceh (an autonomous province in Indonesia), three local political parties are engaged in the parliamentary race. Reported in the Jakarta Globe on 22 March 2014 “two National Aceh Party (PNA) members were critically injured and a member of the Aceh Party (PA) was hospitalised for non-life-threatening injuries in related incidents.” Ahmad Syuib, a 28 year-old PA member, was shot in the torso after attending the PA campaign launch in the northern district of Aceh.

PA members and supporters, based upon the assumption the attack was carried out by rival party PNA (both parties were formed from the now disbanded Free-Aceh Movement), attacked property belonging to PNA councillor Dedi Safrizal. The assailants then proceeded to physically assault two other PNA members in a coffee shop.

The situation was reportedly under control by the following afternoon with calls from Sofyan, the secretary of the PNA North Aceh chapter requesting PNA supporters refrain from retaliation.

These elections are one to watch. Indonesia will be going to the polls in an environment significantly different to previous elections. With a definite change in presidential leadership, the country of 240 million people is seeking unity through politicians the masses can trust.

Melissa Reid holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Applied Human Rights from RMIT University and a Bachelor of Arts from La Trobe University with a focus on politics and philosophy. She has experience working in Aboriginal health and mental health with a focus on social policy in Victoria. Melissa has also worked for not-for-profit organisations in Australia, Rwanda and Viet Nam using education, human rights and relationship-building as a tool to address poverty and disadvantage and to pursue the realisation of people’s human rights.