Indonesian presidential candidates, Joko Widodo, third left, and Prabowo Subianto, second left, greet each other during a televised debate in Jakarta, Monday. Pic: AP.

Gerindra deputy goes on attack  following televised reference to Prabowo’s human rights record

As the remaining presidential candidates enter the crucial final stages of the campaign season in Indonesia, an increasingly antagonistic and caustic brand of politicking is beginning to characterise relations between the two camps. With so-called “black campaigning” and increasingly personal putdowns being launched one way and the other, tensions are evidently running high as the presidential hopefuls go into the home straight.

In the wake of Monday night’s live presidential debate, the first in a series of four which will be held prior to election day, the consensus in the Indonesian press has landed in favour of Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla, who are widely believed to have outperformed the tough-talking former general, Prabowo Subianto, and his running mate Hatta Rajasa. Jusuf Kalla in particular is thought to have put in an exceptional performance, with one journalist for kompas.com even going so far as to reward the veteran Golkar contender with a hypothetical “man of the match” prize.

Indeed, perhaps the highlight of the evening for many observers was when Jusuf Kalla implicitly challenged Prabowo to account for his longstanding charges of human rights violations, including the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 98, perpetrated under Prabowo’s watch during his tenure as Kopassus special forces commander. In his response to Kalla’s inquiry, Prabowo attempted to substantiate his plea of innocence by resorting to a strange combination of militaristic platitude and fantastical egotism, neither of which were nearly sufficient to allay the fears of Prabowo’s detractors: “I am a former soldier who did his duty as best as I could”, he began humbly. “Aside from that, it’s up to the judgment of my superiors… I take responsibility, and my conscience is clear. I am the staunchest defender of human rights in this country.”

Following Kalla’s subtle but nonetheless unwelcome probe into his dark past, Prabowo’s loyal cadres have rushed to re-affirm their unwavering support for the old general, as well as his indisputable innocence viz-a-viz the lingering allegations. One voice which has been clamouring particularly loudly since Monday night is that of renown intellectual and deputy chairman of the Gerindra party, Fadli Zon.

Through various Indonesian media outlets, Fadli has kept up a steady stream of sardonic reprisals aimed at Jusuf Kalla, in an all too conspicuous effort to divert attention away from Prabowo’s past crimes. Speaking to reporters immediately after the debate on Monday night, Fadli claimed that Kalla’s loaded question was of no significant import, since Prabowo has already dealt with the human rights issue time and time again, (even though he has never stood trial for the crimes in question). He then went on to claim that Kalla’s prickly allusion to Prabowo’s track record “was a question which we already anticipated”, adding that, “It was a cheap [question], taken from the rubbish bin once again.”

Fadli then attempted to take the moral high ground on the matter, accusing Kalla of launching a veiled assassination of Prabowo’s character, and also reassuring reporters that neither Prabowo nor his campaign team would ever do such a devious thing to Kalla’s camp in return. Fadli went ahead and did it anyway, however, telling reporters that if “[we] wanted to launch an attack, I would have asked [Kalla] to clarify his [earlier] statement that Indonesia will disintegrate if led by Jokowi [Joko Widodo].”

Here Fadli is referring to a recent item of “black campaigning” which has been making its way around the social media circuit in Indonesia: a video of Jusuf Kalla discussing the possibility of a Jokowi presidency back in 2012, in which he concludes that Jokowi is not fit to lead the nation due to lack of political experience. Kalla warns voters against rushing to support Jokowi for president before he has finished his first term as Jakarta governor, suggesting instead that Indonesians should wait to see if he can cope as governor of the capital before he attempts to lead the country. The video had been safely suppressed up until the end of last month when a presumed pro-Gerindra activist leaked the clip online.

In his response to the video, Kalla has since retracted his bleak musings on the idea of a Jokowi presidency. A recent article on merdeka.com shortlisted Kalla’s “five defences” of Jokowi as a presidential candidate, which essentially amount to Kalla having changed his mind during the two years since the video was made. “Now Jokowi has already got the experience”, Kalla explains in reason number two, and “Me and Jokowi complement each other well”, claims Kalla in reason number three.

Whether or not these are honest answers is hard to tell, especially so when we consider that Kalla’s own party – Golkar – has opted into Prabowo’s “red-and-white” coalition, rather than lending its support to Jokowi’s PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle). What we can say for sure, however, is that charges of Kalla having little faith in his running mate can be much more easily and conclusively rebutted than charges of Prabowo being complicit in a litany of egregious human rights violations.

With this being so, figures like Fadli Zon are now resorting to some rather spurious methods of undermining Jokowi-JK, whilst simultaneously aggrandizing Prabowo-Hatta on the basis of some equally spurious and superficial observations.

On Tuesday, June 10, for example, the day after the presidential debate, Fadli told reporters that, “Prabowo and Hatta’s presentation was that of statesmen. [But] as for the presentation of Jokowi and JK, [they're just] politicians.” Taking the comparison further, Fadli then went on to proclaim that “Prabowo’s answers were the answers of a president, Jokowi’s answers were those of a governor.”

Unfortunately for Gerindra and the rest of the “red-and-white” coalition, no amount of clever rhetoric or caustic putdowns will ever be able to clear Prabowo’s name in time for election day on July 9. Serious allegations of past human rights abuses will continue to be the Achilles heel of Prabowo’s presidential campaign, and will not be put to bed by simply dismissing the matter or launching tit-for-tat reprisals on Prabowo’s current opponents. The fact remains that Prabowo has never been tried in a court of law for his alleged crimes, despite numerous state-sanctioned fact finding missions concluding that there is substantial evidence on which to prosecute the old general for his involvement in the abduction, torture and disappearance of pro-democracy activists between 1997 and 1998. Even as recently as 2006, the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) recommended the prosecution of Prabowo, followed by a request from the House of Representatives in 2009, who collectively lobbied President Yudhoyono to set up a dedicated human rights tribunal through which to deal with a number of outstanding cases, including Prabowo’s.

To this day, however, Prabowo has escaped trial and has eluded justice, and is now closer than ever before to winning a presidential election. With so much at stake, we can expect to see Prabowo’s campaign team wheeling out a wide range of defence mechanisms in the coming weeks, and doing whatever they can to divert attention from any serious discussion of his past crimes.