President Joko Widodo has asked his former rival Prabowo Subianto to join his cabinet as defence minister. Photo by Presiden Joko Widodo on Facebook.

After two highly charged electoral contests between political rivals Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, relations between their respective supporters have grown tense, even devolving into name-calling.

Jokowi’s supporters are derided by the opposition as mindless “tadpoles” (“cebong”), in reference to the twice-elected president’s hobby of capturing and raising tadpoles, and releasing them as frogs around the Bogor Presidential Palace pond. Meanwhile, twice-defeated candidate Prabowo’s supporters are labelled bothersome “bats” (“kampret”), using a pejorative Javanese word that shares consonants with the acronym of his previous parliamentary coalition (Red and White Coalition, or Koalisi Merah Putih, KMP).

But despite the diametric opposition between their supporters, in reality the political difference between the two leaders is shrinking, if not disappearing altogether.

In an unexpected turn of events, Prabowo has accepted Jokowi’s offer to serve as a minister in the key portfolio of defence. Fellow Gerindra Party member Edhy Prabowo was also gifted the role of minster of maritime affairs and fisheries, replacing the much loved Susi Pudjiastuti.

Relations between Jokowi and Prabowo have been thawing in the months since the election in April this year. Earlier this month the pair held an “intimate” meeting at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, an encounter that ended with a cheerful “selfie” photo with media. In July, Prabowo met Jokowi aboard the newly opened mass rapid transit system in Jakarta, and visited Megawati Soekarnoputri, the head of the president’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), at her private residence.

These meetings were hailed as positive efforts to diminish the social tensions that arose during the campaign period. But what does the emerging alliance say about the political differences between the supposed rivals, not to mention the checks and balances that should be provided by an active opposition? And why bother dividing voters in the first place if the two leaders are to end up working side-by-side?

In fact, there have long been significant political similarities shared by Jokowi and Prabowo, which many observers – caught up in the animosity among voters – have failed to identify.

There are at least three elements that unite the two camps in politics: First, both come from the same political source, operating within the oligarchic power relations that continue to define Indonesian politics into the post-New Order era. Second, the two warring factions are equally illiberal in their political tendencies. Third, both rely on reactionary politics and propaganda to divide and conquer the electorate.

The familiar face of the oligarchy

In the post-New Order era, Indonesia has yet to escape the grip of predatory alliances in business and politics that have managed to adapt to, and maintain control over, the political sphere since Soeharto’s time as president.

Jokowi’s candidacy for president back in 2014 was seen as an experiment in departure from this pattern, particularly given his background as a figure from outside the political and military elite. But over the past five years of Jokowi’s first term as president, his administration has failed to implement its expected progressive agenda. Instead, it seems to have been captured by the elite.

In this year’s presidential election, both contending pairs – Jokowi with Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo with Sandiaga Uno – were supported by New Order-era alliances. The influence of old oligarchic forces can be seen the distribution on both sides of politics of New Order-era politicians, party elites, and conglomerates, as well as business players from the Soeharto family.

Among the business interests of this cohort are reportedly corrupt projects in the mining sector, including state-owned projects, which critics say contribute to environmental destruction and continued high levels of economic inequality.

In sum, liberal reformist forces have failed to have an impact in the political sphere, and oligarchic alliances have maintained their influence over Indonesian politics.

Illiberal democracy against liberal reform 

Liberal reformists promote an agenda of strengthening transparency of power relations, protection of civil and political rights and freedoms, and a guarantee of equality before the law – precisely the types of changes that are capable of uncovering oligarchic practices and plundering of state resources.

It is hardly surprising, then, that illiberal politics has become the dominant character of oligarchic factions struggling to hold onto power in the post-New Order era.

An illustration of this can be found in the case of Budi Pego, a farmer from Tumpang Pitu village in the Banyuwangi district of East Java, who together with his community attempted to sue an illegal gold mining operation in the area. The operation, as it turned out, was linked to various oligarchic factions of the business-political elite. Budi subsequently became a victim of political stigma, was labelled a communist by state authorities, and faced charges relating to crimes against state security. No one on either side of politics came to his defence.

Tellingly, in televised debates held ahead of this year’s presidential election, neither Jokowi nor Prabowo displayed a firm attitude regarding environmental issues, including the proposed expansion of designated mining areas, despite the known risks for legal and environmental violations, and potential for other forms of corruption.

The distraction of reactionary politics

Yet another similarity between the two sides is their use of reactionary politics. This element is rather insidious, since the positions of either side can appear very different on the surface, even though they use the same political tactic.

As defined by American political theorist Corey Robin, reactionary politics is a political style that prioritises social harmony and a hierarchical social order, and rejects any political struggle for social equality and political freedom. In Indonesia, this style has continued to be employed in the post-authoritarian era as an inherited legacy of the New Order, in support of oligarchic factions who don’t want their access to power and wealth to be controlled or supervised.

This year’s presidential election was marked by an orchestrated “air fight” of reactionary politics propaganda – taken up with vigour by the followers of each candidate.

Team “bat” pushed an agenda of anti-communism, anti-aseng (targeting Chinese-Indonesians), and dividing those seen as “natives” from those considered “non-natives” of Indonesia. Abdul Somad, a well-known Islamic cleric and Prabowo supporter, in a YouTube sermon accused 200 candidates in the legislative election of sharing a background in the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and heralded a clash between the PKI and Pancasila, Indonesia’s national ideology.

Team “tadpole” responded with a narrative on the threat of radicalism among Prabowo’s coalition and supporters. Online news media aligned with Jokowi warned of aspirations to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Indonesia, and the infiltration of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and ISIS into national politics, including via the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as a member of Prabowo’s previous parliamentary coalition.

What has remained absent in the struggle between the two camps – articulated only by critical activists in the non-aligned group of “golput” (golongan putih, “white group”) group or non-voters – is any progressive or liberal political agenda that could dampen the reactionary tactics used by leaders to manipulate the public. As long as oligarchic factions maintain control over national politics in Indonesia, hopes for such a liberal-reformist agenda will remain stalled.

Old power, new faces

Viewed from this perspective, it is not so surprising that Jokowi and Prabowo have decided to team up in a single coalition.

Political-economic analysts who indicated previously that reconciliation was impossible between the two opposing camps failed to recognise the underlying political similarities that continue to unite the two, and the absence of any substantive policy differences.

The “bats” and “tadpoles” may continue to battle it out in social media, but the oligarchic forces that orchestrated their conflict will just continue to grow stronger in prosperity and power.

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