Will Modern Indonesians Put an End To the Myth of the Javanese President?

Jakartaglobe.id – An enduring myth exists in Indonesia that all of our presidents must come from Java, or at least have Javanese blood. Even in the democratic, free and liberal political landscape of today, this myth persists. Is it a manipulation of our collective consciousness, or is it indeed a reality?

Our strong belief in the “Javanese president” is deeply rooted in a social demographic that sees the majority of voters located in Java. Racial and primordial sentiments can become crucial considerations when people cast their votes, which tends to explain the political prevalence of emotional voters.

This trend still exists today, but it’s not as strong as it once was. A national survey conducted in October by my organization, the Developing Countries Studies Center, showed that only 19.4 percent of respondents believed the nation’s president should be of Javanese descent. The majority, 73.3 percent of respondents, believed hereditary origins were not very important.

This survey indicates that there has been a fundamental shift in voter attitudes. Most likely this shift began in 1999 as a result of political modernization, but it accelerated in 2004.

That year, the victory of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the presidential election was largely determined not by his Javanese roots, but by his charisma and effective communication style, which the public saw as a departure from most politicians at the time.

Yudhoyono’s countrywide popularity was evident in the fact that he received a relatively even distribution of votes from around the country, indicating that he was not seen as just representing Java.

Based on this evidence, we should be skeptical of people who claim that a Javanese president is truly a popular aspiration. It is possible that certain political elites invented this notion, or at least are trying to keep it alive, to serve their strategic interests. But the fact is, the public seems to consider the political issue of Javanese roots as antiquated — a relevant issue in the past, perhaps, but not any longer.

And yet at the elite level, each time there is a discussion of national leadership, it seems there is always an emphasis on the Javanese/non-Javanese issue. This emphasis either indicates an inability among the elite to accurately read the public’s changing perceptions, or a tendency to preserve the myth for their political interests.

So does a non-Javanese presidential candidate have a chance in 2014?

Based on the political dynamics we see today, the competition for the presidency is already under way. Numerous analysts have come out and predicted that the next presidential election will be rigorous and particularly interesting, especially because Yudhoyono cannot run for re-election.

Many of the perceived leading candidates at this early date are not Javanese, including Aburizal Bakrie, Hatta Rajasa and Surya Paloh. Of course, Javanese figures such as Megawati Sukarnoputri and Prabowo Subianto are also in the running.

There is no potential candidate that could be considered dominant at this point. Megawati has the most experience, while the others are fairly even in that regard. With the right platform and an effective campaign, the door is wide open for a non-Javanese leader to gain the nation’s highest office.

This kind of optimism, for those of us who would like to see the myth exposed, is not just wishful thinking. The three non-Javanese politicians mentioned above are not newcomers to Indonesian politics. Their experience, strategic positions, mass support and political capital are enormous.

Aburizal Bakrie, for example, is chairman of the Golkar Party and the successful leader of a far-reaching conglomerate. He also owns media that are ready to aid his campaign machine.

With these advantages, Aburizal can do much in the field. The only thing that will hurt him is perhaps the Sidoarjo mudflow in East Java, where he can expect less support.

Next is Hatta Rajasa, chairman of the National Mandate Party (PAN) and a leader from South Sumatra. He is known widely as a loyal politician, both within his party and in the greater government. In his party, Hatta is close to Amien Rais, and in the cabinet he is known to be loyal to Yudhoyono.

The president has rewarded him for this loyalty with a number of strategic ministerial posts, including state secretary and coordinating minister for economic affairs. Recently, Hatta’s daughter married the president’s son, and Hatta said Yudhoyono would support him in the 2014 presidential election. With his status as a technocrat and a professional, he could garner public attention.

Another potential non-Javanese candidate is Surya Paloh, a media entrepreneur and chairman of the National Democrat Party (Nasdem). His media company has been a major force in sustaining his political mission, and it will be strategic asset for the former Golkar politician.

At the same time, however, Surya’s media strategy could backfire. The public could become extra critical if the political use of the media for campaigns, either directly or indirectly, exceeds the limits of accepted norms.

The presence of non-Javanese leaders is not a new phenomenon in the political history of Indonesia, which has already seen some non-Javanese “presidents.” In 1949, Assaat, a West Sumatran-born national leader, became the acting president of the Republic of Indonesia in Yogyakarta, which was part of the United Republic of Indonesia (RIS).

Half a century later, in 1998, B.J. Habibie, a technocrat who hails from South Sulawesi, took control after former President Suharto resigned under popular demand by the people.

Obviously, it is no longer far-fetched to imagine a non-Javanese president in Indonesia. Trends in other countries also show that non-majority groups are beginning to gain a top place on the political stage. In the United States, President Barack Obama was able to compete and win as an African-American candidate, rising to become the first black president in US history.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Australia when Julia Gillard became the first Australian woman to reach the position of prime minister. Angela Merkel in Germany is another example, as the first female chancellor of the country.

These realities, backed by historical support and global trends, seem to suggest that a non-Javanese president in modern Indonesia might just be a matter of time.

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