Militarist party positioning itself in Indonesia

The political party Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) recently announced its 314-strong leadership structure. Gerindra is headed by Suharto era general and son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. Subianto was forced out of the army in 1999 after he was accused of masterminding the kidnapping and disappearance of student activists in 1997 and 1998. At that time, he was head of the Strategic Army Command and was endeavouring to save the Suharto dictatorship as it came up against increasing resistance from a student-led mass protest movement.

East Timorese human rights and solidarity activists have also accused Subianto of being responsible for massacres and torture in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation. Information from the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) connects him with the 1983 Kraras and 1991 Santa Cruz massacres.

East Timor solidarity activist and historian Jill Jolliffe also cites the example of an East Timorese man, Domingos Santana Guterres. He tells how he was arrested by General Subianto, then a major, in July 1989 and tied up and thrown into a cell. He says he was kept in the cell alone for four days, deprived of food and water and forced to lie in his own excrement. He alleges that was tortured by soldiers under Subianto’s command when he refused to confess to having guerrilla contacts. He was kicked, beaten, given electric shocks and made to stand naked in a barrel under torrential rain for hours. After each torture session, Indonesian military nurses treated his wounds to prepare him for the next bout.

Guterres said that on September 29 he was taken into Subianto’s office, where the officer screamed that he would teach him a lesson. “For two hours he broke every conceivable thing over my body. He threw beer crates, a petrol lamp, beat me with sticks and punched and kicked me”, he said. Subianto also threaded an electric wire between Guterres’ bound hands and gave him electric shocks. “I was so swollen and bleeding afterwards, I was unrecognisable”, he said.

It is not surprising that Gerindra was among the parties supporting the Indonesian ban on the screening of the film Balibo, on the preparation of the invasion of East Timor.

Subianto was accepted by Megawati Sukarnoputri as her vice-presidential running mate in the 2009 presidential elections, needing Gerindra’s small parliamentary representation to make the 25% of parliamentary members required to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Megawati-Subianto lost to Yudhoyono. It has been reported that Megawati agreed to support Subianto as presidential candidate in 2014, although this has not been confirmed.

Since the beginning of 2012, Subianto has repeatedly announced that he is ready to be a presidential candidate in 2014. Several polls have put him as the most favoured candidate at the moment, although the results of these polls are highly suspect. In 2009, Gerindra scored 4.5% of the votes cast (probably around 40% of the potential voters didn’t vote). However, the fact that all the candidates being discussed in elite circles are unpopular tycoons or failed politicians, and that, as well, the popular movement has provided no leadership and offers no challenge to the elite at the moment, his chances should not be underestimated.

Co-opting popular discontent

The announcement of Gerindra’s new leadership was clearly timed to make best use of the tactical gain by Gerindra in the current elections of the governor of Jakarta. It should be noted that the party’s leadership includes scores of retired generals, including Major General Chairawan, the former commander of Commando Group 4 Sandi Yudha Kopassus, which oversaw Tim Mawar, which organised the kidnapping and disappearance of activists. It also includes the current chairperson (serving two parties simultaneously) of the formerly progressive People’s Democratic Party (PRD), Agus Jabo Priyono. The PRD chairperson’s official position in Subianto’s political machine is chairperson for mapping electoral potential.

Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and Gerindra jointly nominated candidates for governor and vice-governor of the special region of Jakarta, which are important positions. They nominated Joko Widodo, currently mayor of the city of Solo in Java, and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, currently the head of a district in Sumatra. Widodo has become extremely popular in Solo, achieving more than 90% in the elections for his second term of office as a result of a brilliant image-building campaign based on presenting as the opposite of the stereotypical politician in Indonesia. He has organised some re-apportioning of the Solo budget to expand welfare measures while always posing in public as able to dialogue with the “common people”, usually represented by small traders and peddlers. However, the rich-poor gap, poverty levels and the entry of big capital in Solo have continued unabated.

His running mate, Ahok, is a district head of similar reputation. Ahok has also been appointed by Subianto as part of the new Gerindra leadership. Gerindra is claiming some of the credit for the victory of the Widodo-Ahok team in the first round of the elections, held July 11, in which they beat the incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, supported by President Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party. The second round will be held September 20.

Nationalist populism

The nationalist populism of Gerindra has drawn support from significant elements from activist circles as the anti-neoliberal rhetoric of the last few years has evolved into a scapegoating of foreign capital that excludes attacking Indonesian capitalists. Subianto himself is a director of Karazanbasmunai, an oil and gas company in Kazakhstan, as well as a director of PT Tidar Kerinci Agung, president and CEO of PT Nusantara Energy and the president and CEO of PT Jaladri Nusantara.

This populist trend is being strengthened by the Widodo Jakarta gubernatorial campaign, with the potential for Widodo’s popularity to rub off on Gerindra. It is a big question as regards Widodo’s own democratic principles as to why he did not reject nomination by a figure with Subianto’s record. At the same time, the various Indonesian left groups do not seem to have circulated critiques of these developments. Subianto may be in with a chance.

Direct Action — July 23, 2012