Jakarta. Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto has clarified remarks made over the weekend in which he appeared to question the merits of democracy, including direct elections, telling a meeting of foreign ambassadors on Monday that he would never try to undermine Indonesia’s democratic process.
“Please be assured, I am a democrat. I believe in democracy,” Prabowo said at the event at Jakarta’s Borobudur Hotel hosted on Monday night by the Indonesian Council on World Affairs.
His statement was prompted by a question from an Australian university lecturer about whether he preferred a stronger form of government, such as those found in Malaysia and Singapore, rather than the one that Indonesia currently had.
In his response, Prabowo said he was aware the question asked was a leading one and that he was being painted as “somebody who is anti-democracy.”
Prabowo said there were those who wanted to portray him as seeking to establish an “authoritarian government, [that] I want to go back to the New Order.”
But he refuted the notion, saying that his previous comments “have been taken out of context, or not in the complete version.”
Prabowo was reported by the local media as saying at a discussion in Jakarta on Saturday that Indonesia had adopted Western cultural and political ideals, such as democracy, and held them above Indonesian ones, “even though they’re not appropriate.”
“But we’ve gone too far,” he said as quoted by Merdeka.com. “Like direct elections — we’ve already gone down that path. It’s like someone addicted to smoking; if we ask them to stop, the process will be difficult.
“I believe much of our political and economic systems go against [Indonesia’s] fundamental philosophy, laws and traditions, but what’s done is done. We need a new consensus,” he said on Saturday.
In his discussion with the foreign ambassadors on Monday, though, the candidate emphasized that he was a strong believer in the democratic process, having previously run for the country’s highest office in 2004 and as a vice presidential candidate in 2009.
“I’ve been in politics already for, what, nearly 10 years? This is my third general election. So I do it the hard way. I don’t go assemble tanks and take over the House [of Representatives], no,” he said.
He explained that in Saturday’s discussion at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center, where he was quoted as suggesting that direct elections were un-Indonesian, he was only talking about the shortcomings of Indonesia’s current system of direct elections.
“But no, I am not proposing going back to any form of undemocratic system. It’s way past us,” Prabowo said.
“Our people are already comfortable with democracy. They like to scrutinize all their leaders. And they like to grill us. They like to … ‘fit and proper test,’” he added, using the local expression for a House vetting process.
“Everything they will check, everything, believe me. Tomorrow [Tuesday] I have to declare all my assets, they will check how many goats I have, even,” Prabowo said, drawing laughter from the audience.
An affordable democracy
Prabowo said the current system of direct election, for posts ranging from mayor and district chief, up to governor and president, forced those seeking public office to spend enormous amounts of money campaigning in order to get elected. He said this had engendered a culture of rampant vote-buying, which in turn made elected officials more likely to commit corruption in order to recoup their costs quickly.
He said what he was alluding to in Saturday’s talk was “how to devise a system that is still democratic, that still represents the will of the people, but that is affordable.”
“I was just commenting that the original concept of our founding fathers is actually more toward Westminster parliamentary democracy. He who wins the legislative election [...] can get majority rule in parliament, you are automatically chief of the executive. In our opinion it could be cheaper, with less vote buying,” Prabowo said.
“Our version of democracy is very expensive. Believe me, I know it,” he said.
“If you ask all the district chiefs who have won elections how much they spent on the election campaign, they will spend roughly, in Java, around at least $1.5 million,” he added. “I know because one of my candidates reported to me that he spent $1.3 million and he lost the election. He lost the election.”
On the other hand, Prabowo said, if elected, a district chief’s income is far from sufficient to make up for the amount spent on getting them elected.
“The salary of a district head is around Rp 6 million, or $600 something. Now with the rupiah depreciating, it is now, what, $500?” he said. “How can a district chief with a salary of $500 [...] get back his election campaign costs of $1.5 million?”
Aligning with SBY
Prabowo said this inability to reconcile their high capital outlay with their modest official income created “the conditions for rampant corruption.”
“What happens usually is, the elected official will be beholden to financiers. And who are these financiers? They could be … they could be drug lords. Yes? They could be gangsters, mafia. Who has the money to back candidates around Indonesia in the amount of billions [of rupiah]? The minute he becomes district chief, he will plunder the budget of the region, which is what usually happens.” Prabowo said.
He noted that a large number of elected officials, from mayors to district chiefs to governors, were mired in corruption allegations, with dozens tried and convicted in recent years.
“The number of district chiefs facing legal problems is something in the order of about 30 percent. That’s 30 percent of all district chiefs who are facing indictment because of corruption,” he said.
As such, Prabowo said that while he was keen to uphold the tenets of democracy and retain the system of direct elections, he wanted to establish “a democracy that is consistent with our economic means” and one that is free from the “danger of corruption.”
His call chimes with efforts by the avowedly democratic administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to keep the costs of regional elections down in a bid to tackle the scourge of corruption.
The Home Affairs Ministry has long pushed for amendments to the electoral law to have mayors and district heads, of whom there are about 500 nationwide, to be appointed by city and district councils rather than chosen through direct elections, reasoning that this will help save the candidates and the government trillions of rupiah every year.
Prabowo’s notions of electoral reform, like much of his platform, dovetail with the various programs for which the Yudhoyono administration has earned plaudits from the international community.
But critics still question the former Army general’s commitment to democracy.
“If you look at his [past] rhetoric, it’s not surprising that some people are worried about his commitment to upholding democracy,” Djayadi Hanan, the research director at Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, a pollster, said. “In front of ambassadors and foreigners, of course he will say that he is pro-democracy, because he wants to have good relations with them.”
Djayadi said Prabowo’s “true self” was apparent at the discussion on Saturday: “He does have the tendency to think that democracy is something that is not suitable for Indonesia. That is a mind-set that comes from the New Order era.”
SMRC is one of a handful of pollsters that have refused to publish the results of their most recent opinion polls ahead of the July 9 election, even as other surveyors point to Prabowo closing the gap on his rival, Joko Widodo, or even overtaking him.
Another pollster that has declined to publish recent survey results is the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose executive director, Rizal Sukma, serves on Joko’s campaign team.
The results of a poll published over the weekend by Indo Barometer put Joko at 46 percent and Prabowo just 3 percent behind, after having lagged by as much as 20 points a few months earlier.
“In my view, Prabowo will not be extreme,” Muhammad Qodari, the executive director of Indo Barometer, said. “If so, he will have to stand against his coalition partners. His own party has very few seats at the House, so he is dependent on his wider political alliance.”
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