The International Herald Tribune headlined it “A Proudly Normal Election” in Indonesia, and it was — a minimal-choice election, as normally happens in most countries (Jacob Ramsay, “A Proudly Normal Election, ” International Herald Tribune, July 8, 2009).
This election was a de facto choice among three mass-killing Suharto generals — each of them old US proteges — one of whom actually embodied the specter of something like fascist dictatorship, and people voted for the smoothest, least frightening general, the incumbent, Gen. Susilo.
But it was impossible on the ballot to vote for the poor or to vote against killing civilians, because none of the candidates, pre-screened by the establishment, stood for anything like that: these were candidates of the rich, and of murder.
Gen. Susilo had most of the army and most of the rich people behind him, so he had most of the media propaganda and also most of the campaign money.
In Indonesia a lot of poor people like the election season because they get direct cash bribes. Party messengers come to their homes and give each family several dollars, and this time everyone I met said Gen. Susilo’s footmen gave the most money.
Beyond that, his two rivals were repulsive to many people. They selected as their running mates the two most hated generals in the country. One, Gen. Prabowo, has a neo-fascist style and made his name as a hands-on torturer and as Suharto’s son-in-law, and the other, Gen. Wiranto, saved the army in 1998 when he threatened a Tienanmen-style massacre of demonstrators if they challenged the army after toppling Suharto.
So compared to those two, Gen. Susilo seemed less bloodthirsty, even though he’s been high in the chain of command for some of the country’s most famous massacres, including Jakarta ’96, occupied East Timor ’99, Aceh in the early 2000s, and as President he’s backed nationwide police torture and army torture and murder in sealed-off Papua, and has a practice of arresting people who insult him or who hoist local independence flags. Economically, Gen. Susilo broke the law and canceled severance pay for workers, and hunger and diarrhea have been increasing nationwide, especially in Nusatenggara in eastern Indonesia.
But he’s done all that smoothly. He’s seen as smart, and he gets lots of foreign money. The US and investors like him because he does the necessary killing and holds down wages discreetly — without bragging about it — and he lets them take minerals and forests and labor while demanding smaller bribes than Suharto.
And at the same time he’s made life better for city elites, lots of condos and spectacular malls. If you have money, life in Jakarta can be Valhalla. That gets him good press coverage.
But if you’re poor, police thugs will come and bulldoze your home to put up those fancy condos, and your chances of working, eating, or putting your kid through primary school are the same or worse than before Susilo.
So the Herald Tribune is right, this was a normal election. There was voting but there wasn’t much choice.
ALLAN NAIRN writes the blog News and Comment at www.newsc.blogspot.com.