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Understanding Indonesia’s Presidential Elections' by Dr Nasir Tamara

Understanding Indonesia’s Presidential Elections
Date/Time: Jun 08, 2009 / 5.00pm
Venue: The SIIA House, 2 Nassim Road Singapore 258370


Dr Nasir Tamara is an expert on Indonesian politics and development. He is now a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at ISEAS. He was educated in University of Paris, France where he got his MA in Political Sciences and later PhD in Southeast Asian History and Anthropology. He was later appointed a Fellow at Harvard University’s Centre for International Affairs under the later Prof. Samuel Huntington and at Oxford University’s Queen Elizabeth House.  He was also a Fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii.

He is currently working on a book on “Palace Politics and Public Policy: Indonesian Presidency from Soekarno to Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono”. His next book “Indonesia Rising” will be publish soon. He was appointed by President B.J.Habibie as an expert of politics at The National Research Council. In his professional world, Dr. Nasir Tamara has worked as scholar and consultant in politics for Indonesian Presidential Election in 2004 and Parliamentarian Election in 1999. He has also involved in international affairs and development. Before joining ISEAS he served as National Coordinator for Target Millennium Development Goals for UNDP Jakarta office. He has also advised the Coordinating Minister of People’s Welfares of Indonesia in organizing the first National Summit on Human Development.  Dr Nasir Tamara has a long experience in media working as a founder and Deputy Chief Editor of Republika Daily, Chief Editor of Warta Ekonomi and Capital, foreign correspondent for Tempo Magazine and Sinar Harapan Daily, founder and CEO of Global TV in Jakarta.  He has published and edited and translated over 15 books. His selected published books are: US Influence on Indonesian Elite, Human Rights in Indonesia, Corruption in Indonesia,, Indonesia in the Wake of Islam. His opinion has been quoted in major international publications such as Bloomberg TV, Time (USA) and International Herald Tribune.

Event Report: 

After a brief introduction by Dr. Lim, in which Dr. Lim both highlighted Dr. Tamara’s expertise in Indonesian affairs and emphasized Indonesia’s critical  regional importance to Southeast Asia’s economic and political development, Dr. Tamara opened the session with a discussion of the general sense of optimism that surrounds Indonesian politics today. In spite of the past differences that exist among the candidates, it is his opinion that the July 8, 2009 election—contested among current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his running mate Boediono, Vice President Jusuf Kalla and his running mate Wiranto, and Megawati Sukarnoputri and his running mate Prabowo Subianto—should be a relatively peaceful process.

Dr. Tamara asked the audience to note several key features about the upcoming election. First, he stressed that all three candidates for the 2009-2014 presidency should be considered members of political dynasties who exemplify the trends of dynasty and celebrity that have tended to monopolize Indonesia’s political elite. Wiranto is a retired army general who made his career through the Indonesian army; Boediono is a former economics professor who worked for the liberal economic planning body for Jakarta and is now governor of the Bank of Indonesia, Indonesia’s central bank; and Prabowo Subianto owed his career to Suharto. Only the choice of Boediono is really the choice of a “new order,” representative of Indonesia’s economic progress.

At the same time, given the personal histories of the fathers of Prabowo and Megawati, who were political rivals, it is also worth noting that in this new generation enemies are becoming friends for the sake of this election.

As Dr. Tamara asked the audience, “These candidates are the new continuation of the old order—they had important roles already in the time of Suharto. What does this mean?” After a brief pause, he suggested that answering this question requires a more careful scrutiny of the history of Indonesia. After the fall of Suharto, there was a continuation of the past, but there was also a new sense of rupture. This rupture has not been very well captured and has often been overlooked by historians and by the media. Most importantly, this rupture from the past has been led by the forces of civil society—students, lawyers, bankers, etc.—for they are the ones who have taken a new, active role in reforming the Indonesian government in  ways that hadn’t been done in the past.

When you consider the programs of the candidates, you realize that this election is really all about personality. All the candidates have proposed similar programs, albeit with minor differences. However, according to the most recent election polls from one month ago, Susilo is expected to win 70 percent of the presidential vote, while Megawati and Jusuf Kalla are expected to garner 20 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Running as an incumbent, Susilo is therefore widely expected to win; however, it seems unlikely that he can garner the full 70 percent that the polls have predicted. Character attacks against his running mate Boediono, who is accused of being a neo-liberal economist, currently run very strong. In Dr. Tamara’s opinion, these attacks have been very successful, and “the artillery is getting nastier every day.”

Additionally, parliamentary investigations into Susilo’s repsonsibility in the last election, when over a million citizens had been denied the opportunity to participate in elections, are also currently underway, and their results may factor into the 2009 presidential election voting come July 8.  Although the 2004 election committee had claimed it simply hadn’t done a very good job registering people, allegations have been made that there was a plot by Susilo’s Democratic Party to prevent voters from supporting other parties.

A third point to consider in examining the likelihood of Susilo’s predicted victory is the role of ethnopolitics, given resistance from non-Javanese to vote for a Javanese ticket, since both Susilo and his running mate Boediono are Javanese, living only an hour away from each other.

What about the other parties? Why did Megawati choose to run with Prabowo? In the last election, Prabowo had claimed to be the only one who could beat Susilo, but the results suggested otherwise: in 2004 Prabowo garnered only 6 percent of the vote, while Megawati won nearly 17 percent. Dr. Tamara surmises that there may be a deal within Megawati’s party to let Prabowo run for the presidency in 2014 if he aligns himself now with Megawati. Indeed, Prabowo presents himself as a very electable candidate: he is highly charismatic and reminds many of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, imitating him in speech and dress. Moreover, Prabowo can also help financially, with a net worth of approximately USD 150 million, compared to Megawati’s USD 8 million.

An interesting point to note is that Susilo’s net worth is still estimated at less than USD 1 million, which means that his wealth has not increased substantially from five years ago until now, even though Indonesia itself has experienced steady growth.

Rounding out the three candidates, Jusuf Kalla’s net worth is estimated at USD 40 million. While Prabowo has suffered some criticism for his role in the violence of the 1998 riots that preceded the fall of Suharto, Jusuf Kalla has been receiving new support recently from the military for his choice of Warinto as running mate.

Indeed, given these many factors influencing voters’ preferences, it seems likely now that the presidential election is going to be a “real election,” in Dr. Tamara’s words, because it is very difficult in the first round to get 50% of the vote in 20 provinces (out of 33), especially with three candidates running.

Dr. Tamara is not sure who will win, but he says one thing is sure: this election is about money. Whoever spends the most money to buy airtime for television newspaper advertisements will gain a tremendous advantage. The candidates will travel less and hold fewer public events for the masses, preferring to conduct their campaigns in what Dr. Tamara terms a “more civilized” manner. Susilo, for example, has hired several outside consultants with experience in U.S. election campaigns to assist him with his campaign strategy.


Assuming that Susilo is elected, what will happen then? Dr. Tamara belies that Susilo is likely to continue his program from the 2004-2009 presidency. Economically, he would maintain his slogan of “pro-growth,” “pro-job,” and “pro-poor.” Politically, he would aim to achieve greater peace and stability and also invest more in the military—the Indonesian military currently is not well maintained and lacks productive investment.

If elected, he is also likely to play an even high profile role internationally. A comprehensive economic partnership with the USA is being negotiated right now, and Indonesia is also likely to initiate similar talks with China and India in the future.

In Dr. Tamara’s view, the Indonesian people now have a choice among three candidates with similar but slightly different programs: the “pro-poor” program, spearheaded by Megawati and Prabowo; the “faster and better” program, spearheaded by Jusuf Kalla and Wiranto; and the “continuation” program, aiming to continue the slow but steady path of progress spearheaded by Susilo during his presidency.

(Hank takes up the microphone)

Hank: “I wonder whether Indonesia, as the largest ASEAN country, will continue to promote ASEAN in the future? In light of the comprehensive partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and Indonesia, it seems likely that ASEAN will be neglected. And military expenditures for sure will also increase, since that is the main agenda, and the government is under tremendous pressure from the military to do so.”

Q&A Session with Dr. Tamara:

Question 1: “Whenever anyone talks above capital investment in Indonesia cross-border, one of the first issues of concern is corruption. How could Susilo have done more about corruption during his term? How much more progress can be made?”

Dr. Tamara: “He is still very sincere. He tries his best. The Indonesian press is very open now, and none of the corruption charges uncovered by the press have been related to Susilo himself directly. He is very serious about his anti-corruption stance.”

Question 2: “How would the Chinese Indonesians look upon Prabowo?”

Dr. Tamara: “He has garnered no support from the Chinese community so far.”

Hank: “In May 1998, General Prabowo was the main actor in the unrest; because victims of the violence were mostly Indonesian Chinese, this is a problem for Prabowo’s campaign in garnering Chinese support.”

Question 3: “You know Susilo quite well, are writing his biography, etc….do you think he will abandon ASEAN and go it alone? The temptation seems fairly great, and Obama has extended his as well. In light of ASEAN’s recent problems and lack of real leadership, how do you think Indonesia will act in the future?”

Dr. Tamara: “I’m working on this book, Indonesia Rising. In titling the book thus, I use the term ‘rising’ not purely in economic parameters. I used it in three different parameters. Economically, of course, Indonesia is doing well—like China, India, and Vietnam, Indonesia is still experiencing steady growth. The Indonesian government has also done a good job in the Ministry of Finance, streamlining taxation procedures and cleaning things up. The second parameter I address is culture—in the past the perception of Indonesian culture was limited to Java, for example, but Indonesia is much richer than that. We have a new Indonesian art scene with modern paintings and vibrant media now. The third parameter is the quality of democracy in Indonesia: our civil society is very vibrant. Looking at these three parameters, I think the future of Indonesia is very bright. Indonesia will respect human rights, and it will also not be a threat to its neighbours. These are real goals.”

Hank: “You mentioned earlier the themes of continuity and rupture. CSIS has said that Indonesia should go it alone…is there any rupture in economic policies that you see coming? Any major changes in foreign direct investment, in monetary fiscal policies, in a potential second term of SBY? Or what about some of the non-economic factors?  Singapore is very concerned that Indonesia in the future may not put the top priority on ASEAN, and that future security issues as Indonesia invests more in its military will probably also be a major concern in the smaller ASEAN countries. Indonesia seems to be shifting further toward big-power politics, with a trend toward developing more mature relationships with the US, India, China, etc.”

Dr. Tamara: “One of the reasons that Indonesia may feel a temptation to go alone is that ASEAN cannot work together (e.g. Myanmar issue, etc.). Indonesia has been very patient, but at some point it feels that it is probably time to go another direction, try something else.”


Reported by:
Carl E. Kubler
Research Intern, SIIA

Event Photographs: 
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Photographs and images used are obtained from publicly-accessible resources. No copyright infringement is intended.


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