‘Make Indonesia Great Again’: Presidential Candidate Runs Against China’s ‘Belt and Road’

Prabowo opens the 2011 Pencak Silat SEA Games tournament held in Taman Mini, Jakarta. He is the Chairman of Indonesia's pencak silat organisation.
Wikipedia/Prabowo Subianto

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former general and chairman of the opposition Gerindra Party, plans to make an issue of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program when he challenges incumbent Joko Widodo next year. Subianto believes some of the Chinese projects are unnecessary.

Subianto’s businessman brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo laid out the campaign platform for reporters at a Monday press conference attended by the South China Morning Post. Djojohadikusumo, whose net worth puts him just shy of billionaire status, is helping to fund his brother’s campaign and also serves as its media director.

“Indonesia and China have a good relationship, but I think there are certain projects that we want to look at. I’m sure there are some projects that are very good, and I’m sure some projects are not necessary,” he said, pointing to a $4.5 billion high-speed rail project financed with Chinese loans as one example.

“I think it’s too expensive,” Djojohadikusumo said. “We’re talking about a U.S. $4 billion investment for a 200-kilometer railway from the suburbs of Jakarta to the suburbs of Bandung.”

“It seems to me that it doesn’t serve a purpose. Most people will be using buses, these are much cheaper and they go from city center to city center,” he said.

Djojohadikusumo pointed to Malaysia as another example of Asian governments pumping the brakes on Belt and Road projects without necessarily becoming “anti-China.”

“In Malaysia, Tun Mahathir has said that the China relationship is very, very important, but he wants to have an equal relationship and, I quote him, according to the Malaysian government they cannot afford to have all these projects, so some have been deferred and some have been canceled,” he said, referring to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

He said such decisions are simply “a matter of cash flow.”

The SCMP pointed out that not only does Jakarta lack the cash flow for projects that will likely struggle to turn a profit, but progress on Belt and Road projects been agonizingly slow due to a variety of financial and bureaucratic issues. The Jakarta-Bandung railway, for example, is only 10 percent complete despite expectations it would be fully operational by next year.

Another concern among Indonesians is that Chinese workers have been pouring into the country to handle much of the Belt and Road labor. In some cases, the Chinese are rumored to be working illegally on tourist visas, an allegation disputed by the Widodo administration.

Prabowo Subianto chose a familiar-sounding campaign slogan and face familiar criticism for it:

In the news conference, Djojohadikusumo reiterated that his brother was not a xenophobe, an accusation that emerged after Prabowo picked “Make Indonesia Great Again” as his campaign slogan.

“The other side has been trying to portray him as a xenophobe … we don’t have the intention for nationalism,” Djojohadikusumo said. “We want to have reciprocal treatment by other countries. Financial services, for instance. The bank sector has been [a source] of unhappiness for us.”

Djojohadikusumo said that Prabowo, if elected president, would ask neighboring countries such as Malaysia to provide a level playing field for Indonesian banks.

Subianto referenced President Trump in a speech last week, expressing admiration for Trump’s tough stance against China and promise to “make America great again.”

“Why are the Indonesian people afraid to say ‘Indonesia first, make Indonesia great again?’ Why there are no Indonesian leaders daring to say the important thing is jobs for Indonesian people?” Subianto asked.

The Subianto campaign did not take kindly to accusations of cribbing campaign rhetoric from Trump. One campaign official noted that the name of the national anthem translates to “Great Indonesia,” the name of Subianto’s party translates to “Great Indonesia Movement,” and therefore “Donald Trump emulated us.

Like many other challengers around the world, Prabowo is running on an anti-corruption platform, promising on Tuesday that he will “neither be power hungry nor dive into personal enrichment.” He also criticizes the high level of income inequality in Indonesia. His critics find this rhetoric hollow coming from a candidate who is already wealthy, holds longtime membership in the Indonesian political elite, and is married to the daughter of longtime president Suharto.

He said this at a meeting in a mosque sponsored by the Indonesian Islamic Front (FPI), one of several Muslim organizations that have grown increasingly powerful as the world’s most populous Muslim nation drifts away from secular government. The FPI is not exactly beloved by human rights watchdogs, having played a role in prosecuting the once-popular Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy because he said something they didn’t like about a verse from the Koran.

Subianto won the support of most Indonesian Islamic parties in his 2014 run against Joko Widodo but ultimately lost the election by a close margin. The campaign saw Widodo fending off rumors that he was a closet Christian, obliging him to respond by circulating photos of himself making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

This time around, Widodo insulated himself from attacks on his Islamic credentials by choosing 75-year-old hardline imam Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Amin was one of the loudest voices accusing Jakarta governor Ahok of blasphemy. Human Rights Watch accused him of writing “fatwas condemning religious and gender minorities.” Subianto went with a venture capitalist as his running mate.

The 2019 campaign has been more cordial than the 2014 race. The two candidates kicked off the race in September by releasing white doves and promising to avoid dirty politics. Last week President Widodo sent his challenger Subianto a jovial Happy Birthday message on social media. “I congratulate my best friend Pak Prabowo Subianto, who celebrated his 67th birthday today,” Widodo wrote.

The Australian sized up Subianto’s campaign in September and concluded he began 20 points behind in the polls but has a shot at winning by focusing on the economy, which has been “buffeted by the rising U.S. dollar and trade war between China and America.” He has an especially good opportunity to reach young urban voters who are grappling with an unemployment rate twice the national average.

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