Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto has vowed he would not roll back the democratic reforms Indonesia has seen under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, stepping back from what he said two days earlier that the country's democracy is not in lockstep with local values and needed adjustments, drawing much concern.
"No, I am not proposing going back to any form of undemocratic system. It is way past us. People are already comfortable with democracy. They like to scrutinise all their leaders... and they like to grill us," he told policy analysts and diplomats who attended a foreign policy dialogue hosted by the Indonesian Council on World Affairs on Monday.
The comments were meant to clarify what he told a discussion last Saturday, that he wanted to stem the tide of Indonesia's leaders adopting Western ways in its political and economic system that clash with the country's philosophical foundation and cultural traditions.
"It turns out actually, these did not fit with our own culture. For example, direct elections," was his reply last Saturday to a question on whether the one-man one-vote system was in line with ideals enshrined in the founding Constitution.
He suggested a national consensus to come up with a new system that reflected an Indonesian-style democracy.
Those comments raised worries that he wanted to turn back the clock on Indonesia's flourishing democracy 16 years after strongman Suharto was toppled.
Mr Prabowo's popularity has surged in the polls partly due to his strongman image, tapping into a nostalgia for Mr Suharto and founding president Sukarno, who both ruled the country with a firm hand.
An added boost came on Monday when the ruling Democrat Party officially announced its backing, giving Mr Prabowo's coalition a 60 per cent command of the new Parliament, lifting the former general's confidence in beating front runner Joko Widodo.
Mr Prabowo's pledge to continue the economic and social programmes of Dr Yudhoyono's administration was one of the major reasons for the President's party to declare its backing.
Last week, investigative American journalist Allan Nairn put up notes on his blog from his off-the-record interviews in 2001 with Mr Prabowo where the latter had said Indonesia "needs... a benign authoritarian regime".
Mr Prabowo on Monday evening gave an 11-minute clarification, claiming his recent comments were misinterpreted.
"I am being created as somebody who is anti-democracy, that I want authoritarian government... I want to go back to the New Order," he jibed, drawing laughter and applause.
"But I told our friends in the coalition, the Indonesian leaders must gather together and look for a new consensus, how to devise a system that is still democratic, that still represents the will of the people, but that is affordable. That we do not create the conditions for rampant corruption."
To Indonesia watchers such as Dr Dave McRae, a political analyst at the University of Melbourne, such comments merely confirmed the former general's opposition to direct elections. "What we are seeing is Mr Prabowo's theme of creating a false sense of crisis of democracy, that Indonesians risked being colonised again, or are not masters of their own country," he told The Straits Times. Several Indonesian analysts have raised similar points.
"Many of us are still very doubtful of Mr Prabowo's commitment to upholding democracy, seeing how he was in the inner circle of authoritarian rule," said Mr Bawono Kumoro of the The Habibie Centre think-tank.
Mr Prabowo was former president Suharto's most trusted general and was married to his daughter, Ms Siti "Titiek" Hediati Haryadi. They are now divorced.
"But whatever Mr Prabowo thinks about the weaknesses of the present system, there is a deal that the nation took once we chose democracy after 1998... and this is a point of no return," said Mr Bawono.
This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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