'Comedy of Errors' and other Indonesian political farces

Indonesia's presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (2nd L) greets his running mate Joko Widodo (C), next to vice presidential candidates Hatta Rajasa (L) and Jusuf Kalla (R), before their presidential debate in Jakarta June 9, 2014. Indonesia will go to the polls to select a new president on July 9.

Do you like comedy? I love it. Not so much The Three Stooges slapstick type, but more farcical drama such as Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest or Moliere's Tartuffe (aka The Impostor or The Hypocrite).

With their buffoonery, horseplay, ludicrously improbable situations and exaggerated characters, they are enormously entertaining. What I also like about farce is the way it turns something that is supposed to be serious into a foolish show, a mockery or a ridiculous sham.

In that case, I should love the current presidential election campaigns (pilpres), which have more than their fair share of farcical absurdity, right? So, how come I've been feeling increasingly distressed, appalled and sick to the stomach as I witness the comedy of errors of our so-called democratic election?

There are many things that are deeply disturbing - the cast of dodgy characters, the lies, the hypocrisy, the turncoats, the opportunists, the unscrupulous characters, the vote buying and those practicing what we call in Indonesian "menjilat ludah sendiri" (literally "to lick back your own spit", meaning, to recant). Even Jusuf Kalla himself once declared that Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was not fit to be a presidential candidate, but here he is now, as his aspiring vice president. Hello?

I guess that's real politics for you huh?

The most perturbing part of the election however, is how some people could get into the race at all, given what they represent: abuse of power, human rights violations, militaristic rule and elitism despite their populist rhetoric.

Who are they fooling? Dodgy and unsavory vestiges of Soeharto's authoritarian regime, they are Tartuffes, posing as leaders who care for the people and the nation, but in reality they are power junkies.

That these putrid leftovers want to hang on to their hegemony is natural. But the fact that we, the people, allow this to happen, is deeply disturbing.

It's true that all nations have their maladies. One of Indonesia's is denial, big time - an unconscious defence mechanism to protect us from unwelcome truths about ourselves. We're not alone in this: Japan, Cambodia, China, Guatemala are also afflicted with this malady, among many others. There are even Holocaust deniers, despite the fact that the Holocaust is one of the best documented events in history. Some even say that Adolf Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in Germany, and that he actively worked to protect them. That, dear reader, is beyond risible.

Despite being plagued by human rights violations allegations, Prabowo Subianto must be a more charismatic figure than Hitler as he has managed to charm and recruit several former activists whom previously his troops had allegedly kidnapped and tortured.

Pius Lustrilanang, Aan Rusdianto, Haryanto Taslam and Desmond J. Mahesa are four of the activists allegedly kidnapped by members of a special forces unit under the command of then Lt. Gen. Prabowo. However, they joined Gerindra, Prabowo's party and hold important positions. Is this a case of Stockholm syndrome, when captives grow to feel attachment to their captors?

I'm beginning to wonder, are we also victims of this Stockholm syndrome? At least those of us who support Prabowo's Gerindra.

We were held hostage (or appeased, or bribed) by Soeharto's authoritarian regime for 32 years, but now about 40 per cent of the electorate are supporting a candidate that may again hold us hostage to his former father-in-law's repressive measures. Do we have such short-term memories? Or are we simply a sick society due to having been raised for so long by Soeharto's unscrupulous political pragmatism whereby the end justifying the means is normal?

There's certainly something to be said about Jokowi's call for a "mental revolution". He says that the changes that have occurred have only been institutional. After 16 years of reformasi (the reform movement) he says, our society is becoming even more galau (confused) because what is needed are changed mind-sets, paradigms and Indonesia's political culture. He says only then can we achieve true and genuine nation-building.

I couldn't agree with him more. But as we all know changing mindsets is the most difficult thing to achieve, which indicates how badly we need it.

What about Jokowi's performance as a leader? He had an excellent track record as mayor of Surakarta for seven years. Given that he's only served one-and-a-half years of his five year term, it's more difficult to give a fair assessment of his performance as governor of Jakarta.

What is certain is that he - with his Deputy Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama - have presented a new leadership style, which is transparent, fresh, appealing and genuinely populist. Have you ever seen Prabowo wading knee deep in dirty flood water, trousers rolled up as Jokowi has? It's not a very dignified look, but very consistent with Jokowi's blusukan (impromptu visits) style. Compare that to Prabowo grandstanding on his US$250,000 Lusitano horse.

It's obvious where my sympathies lie, right?

So you might be surprised if I say that the emergence of Jokowi as a presidential candidate is also a sign of an unhealthy society. Not because he is not a good leader, but the fact that he is immediately catapulted onto the national stage - and international, if he wins - before he even has a chance to complete his term as governor of Jakarta, is a serious sign of our leadership deficit.

Nevertheless, he is obviously the leader that Indonesia's psyche yearns for. Jokowi is also the man that his supporters are looking to for easy answers.

We're a corrupt country, so get a clean guy. Will this end Indonesia's corruption problems? We need to accept, there's a lot of hard work ahead of us. Yes, beginning, with ourselves: a mental revolution.

Jokowi is a leader that wears a checkered shirt, but he doesn't have a checkered past. And electing someone with such a checkered past as Prabowo could quickly turn the farce into tragedy.

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