Prabowo Subianto delivers an address during a huge campaign rally in Jakarta. Photo by AFP.

Presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto has outlined his plans to dismantle Indonesia’s democracy in a public speech, write Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner.

In a speech last Saturday at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural complex in Jakarta, Prabowo stated that direct elections were not compatible with the Indonesian cultural character and gave a strong signal that he wishes to do away with the practice. In other words, while he wants to encourage Indonesians to vote for him in this election, it appears he does not want to give them a chance to evaluate his performance and cast judgment on his presidency in five years’ time.

Though we have not yet been able to access a full transcript of the speech, a report appeared in the online version of the Kompas newspaper in which Prabowo stated that direct elections were a product of Western culture that was not ‘suitable’ to Indonesia. He compared the practice to smoking, something that was hard to stop once somebody is hooked on the practice. He continued that Indonesia needed to come up with a new political format that removed traits that went too far in their ‘Western’ orientation.

Kompas quoted him as saying: “We need a new consensus. Political leaders, intellectuals, religious and cultural leaders, even workers. I don’t want this abnormality to allow us to abandon the cultural values of our ancestors.” Kompas then paraphrased the former general as saying that a large national-scale meeting would be needed to come up with such a new consensus, contrasting this with the current situation in which “at this time, in the name of democracy, all policies have to be via voting, including direct elections”.

Prabowo is here playing a tune that comes directly from the songbook of the former authoritarian regime of his onetime father-in-law General Suharto.

In the early years of his New Order regime, the military claimed to be putting in a place a new ‘consensus’ on which it based its authoritarian system. The regime also always emphasized a (concocted) version of Indonesian tradition, emphasizing mutual deliberation and consensus, in legitimating its anti-democratic practices. Indeed, Prabowo’s statement reads as if extracted directly from the speech of a government leader at the height of the New Order period, in a way that has become very rare since the end of that regime.

Presumably, what Prabowo has in mind is not simply the elimination of direct elections for local government heads (something that he has already spoken explicitly on) but also a return to indirect elections of the President via the MPR (Majelis Pemusyawarahan Rakyat, People’s Consultative Assembly), the process that was used by Suharto and that was, and will be, wide open to manipulation and patronage politics.

This is perhaps the most explicit statement so far of Prabowo’s attitude to electoral democracy. He has stated in the past that democracy ‘exhausts us’, that he wishes to create a ‘productive’ rather than ‘destructive’ democracy, and has indirectly signaled an intent to dismantle much of the infrastructure of post-Suharto democracy by returning to the original version of the 1945 Constitution. Only now do we see that Prabowo very likely also wants to dismantle the very mechanism that will bring him to power: direct presidential elections.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is very rare in the modern world for would-be autocrats to openly state that they want to destroy the electoral system through which they seek to achieve power. They mostly mask such intentions before they are elected. We probably need to go back to the fascist movements of 1930s Europe to find such explicitly authoritarian sentiments expressed by electoral movements that end up winning elections.

So far, however, the camp of Prabowo’s rival, Joko Widodo, seems to be doing nothing to highlight Prabowo’s recent statement and the threat that it implies toward Indonesia’s democratic architecture. This is in line with that campaign’s failure to highlight similarly anti-democratic elements in Prabowo’s statements and appeal, and its apparent unwillingness to pitch this election as one in which the future of Indonesia’s democratic system is at stake.

If Indonesian democracy dies on July 9, it will do so with a whimper, not a bang.

Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner are Indonesia politics specialists based at the Department of Political and Social Change in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. They have been on the ground following the presidential elections.