Wounded Indonesian elite strikes back at upstart Widodo

Wounded Indonesian elite strikes back at upstart Widodo

JAKARTA - Indonesia's wounded establishment is striking back at Joko Widodo after the former slum child ended years of elite rule with victory in July's presidential election, handing him a series of early defeats that have sparked concerns for the future of the young democracy.

Widodo enjoyed a meteoric rise through local politics that served as a springboard to the presidency, and is the country's first leader from outside a small circle of ex-military figures and oligarchs who have ruled Indonesia since the 1998 downfall of dictator Suharto.

The ex-furniture exporter, known by his nickname Jokowi, beat his only rival for the presidency, controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto, with a man-of-the-people image that helped him overcome his opponent's well-funded campaign.

When the Constitutional Court rejected Prabowo's challenge to the results in August, it looked like the end of a closely-fought battle between the old guard and a leader who promised a new, corruption-free style of government for the world's third-biggest democracy.

Far from it. The large coalition of parties that backed Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Suharto, has defied predictions it would fall apart after the ex-general's defeat, and is using its majority in parliament to take control of the legislature and pass laws that Widodo's party oppose.

Observers say not only could Prabowo's "Red and White" coalition, a nationalistic moniker inspired by the colours of the Indonesian flag, block Widodo's ambitious reform plans but the ex-general may have a more sinister agenda - to change the constitution and return the country to indirect presidential polls.

Alexius Jemadu, dean of the school of social and political science at Pelita Harapan University, near the capital Jakarta, described recent political developments as "an alarming sign".

"This is a setback for Indonesian democracy," he said.

The coalition, which controls over half of parliamentary seats compared to just over a third for parties backing Widodo, made its first strike at the incoming leader with a shock vote late last month to abolish the direct election of local leaders.

The move, which will see top officials selected by local parliaments instead of the public, was criticised as a return to a policy from the time of Suharto.

It was also viewed as an attack on a system that has produced a new generation of leaders, the most famous of which is Widodo himself, who started his political career as a directly elected mayor.

'He broke the elite'

Prabowo's supporters "want to prevent another upstart like Jokowi from emerging", said Yohanes Sulaiman, political expert from the Indonesian Defence University.

"Jokowi's a nobody basically, he's a poor guy - and he broke the elite." Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who came in for criticism after his Democratic Party abstained from voting, has issued an emergency decree to annul the law, although parliament could strike this down within a few months.

A week later, the coalition tightened its grip on the legislature at the start of parliament's new term by having its backers chosen for the key posts of speaker and his deputies in a rowdy opening session.

Attention is now focused on the possibility that Prabowo will seek to dominate the People's Consultative Assembly, a joint sitting of the lower and upper houses of parliament, which has the power to change the constitution and reintroduce indirect elections for president Such a move would see lawmakers in the assembly pick the head of state, a development critics say would concentrate power in the hands of the elite and really drag Indonesia back to the time of Suharto.

Some lawmakers from Prabowo's coalition have in the past week publicly criticised direct presidential elections. However a spokesman for the coalition, Tantowi Yahya, insisted that the idea they were intent on changing the polls was "not true".

Others are more sanguine, and believe that Prabowo's coalition is still likely to fall apart as some of its members will shift to backing Widodo in exchange for posts in the new Cabinet before his inauguration on October 20.

Whatever happens, most agree that the past two weeks has been a blow to what had previously been looking like a smooth transition of power.

"It's a very critical period for Indonesia to find some steady course that it can steer, and at the moment that is the last thing that we are getting," said Keith Loveard, a senior risk analyst at Concord Consulting in Jakarta.

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