Don't view Indonesian president Joko Widodo's inclusion of his rival in his cabinet through a western lens

The West's criticism of Asian democracies is unfounded as it fails to take into account public attitudes
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is congratulated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, as First Lady Iriana Widodo stands next to them, after the swearing-in ceremony during the inauguration at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 23, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.  Antara Foto/Wahyu Putro A/ via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.

For a country with a population of 270 million, Indonesia – the world's third largest democracy – generates fewer headlines than one would expect. And when it does, they are frequently negative. For instance, it receives condemnation whenever its courts sentence foreign drug traffickers to death – even though that is the law. The unveiling last month of a revised penal code viewed as threatening to civil liberties led to demonstrations in Jakarta and concern around the world. Now the announcement by president Joko Widodo that he is including his defeated opponent, Prabowo Subianto, in his cabinet has been greeted with howls in the international media.

"Indonesian general accused of kidnapping is named defence minister," the New York Times screamed, while the Guardian warned that it was a "dark day for human rights".

It is true that Mr Prabowo was accused of kidnapping demonstrators in 1998 during the last days before his then father-in-law – the dictator Suharto – stood down, and he was discharged from the military later that year. But he has never been prosecuted. And there are a number of reasons for thinking that the expressions of horror at his appointment may be both over-the-top and fundamentally misguided.

Firstly, at a time of widespread bitter political polarisation, such a gesture of magnanimity to a defeated opponent might be welcomed as an example of Indonesian consensus-making. Mr Prabowo initially disputed Mr Widodo's victory and tried to bring a lawsuit alleging election violations; the Supreme Court rejected the attempt in June. That the president can still describe his vanquished rival as a "good friend" is remarkable, at least from most outside perspectives. Indeed, the reaction in neighbouring Malaysia to Mr Prabowo's appointment was largely to bemoan the fact that such a unifying gesture was unlikely ever to happen here.

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 15, 1985 shows then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos (L) and his wife Imelda (R) appearing before some 35,000 college students undergoing a two-year compulsory military training in Manila. The Philippine government has lost a decades-old legal effort to seize a multi-million-dollar chunk of Ferdinand Marcos' estate, a special anti-graft court said October 25, 2019, scolding prosecutors for failing to produce admissible evidence. - 
 / AFP / Romeo GACAD

Secondly, it is not as though the former general has suddenly risen to prominence. This is the second time he has faced off against Mr Widodo in a presidential election. He also ran for the vice presidency in 2009. He was unsuccessful each time but if he was a credible candidate for the highest office in the past – and he won 47 and 45 per cent of the vote in his two attempts on the presidency – then surely he has the credentials to be a minister.

We should recall too that Wiranto, a former commander of Indonesia’s armed forces, was actually indicted by the United Nations for crimes against humanity during East Timor’s referendum on independence in 1999; he was nevertheless Mr Widodo’s security minister for three years from 2016 and also stood for the presidency and the vice presidency in the past. The fact that Mr Widodo made his name as a graft-busting reformer should give him some authority to call these men to his side.

The third reason is the most important. For this is really a question of critics in the West failing to take into account local culture and traditions. “We would never make these men ministers,” is their response, “so neither should the Indonesians”. Such critics will of course find local human-rights activists who agree with them; the mistake is to assume that these activists are fully reflective of the population as a whole and that because Indonesia is a democracy, it must follow that it is a liberal one, with the whole panoply of values that designation implies.

On the contrary, it would be hard to argue that any country in south-east Asia qualifies as – or has the desire to be – a liberal democracy. And there is a very different attitude towards the past, both the good times and the years of war, revolution and death, than is prevalent in Europe and America. In Germany, 74 years after the end of the Second World War, a former guard at a Nazi concentration camp is currently on trial at the age of 93. In Indonesia and the surrounding countries, there is a culture not necessarily of impunity but certainly ambivalence about the wisdom of resolving past wrongs through the criminal process.

Only a handful of the leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime have faced the courts in Cambodia. No one was ever held to account for the one million massacred in Indonesia during the transition to Suharto's New Order regime in 1966. Suharto himself was investigated but never prosecuted for corruption – despite the fact that Transparency International ranked him as the most corrupt leader of all time in 2004, having allegedly looted between $15 billion and $25bn during his 31-year rule.

The second figure on that list, the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, now lies in the Philippines' national heroes' cemetery, while his son, Ferdinand Jr, narrowly lost the vice presidency in 2016. The West considers these leaders irredeemable villains. But at home there is a sense that quite a lot might also have been achieved under these men; the past is textured.

It is common for outsiders to observe western-style systems such as democracies and fail to comprehend that they might become infused by local values. There was an exchange famed in academia in the 1960s when the Australian scholar Herbert Feith published The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Its Yale reviewer, Harry Benda, wrote that Feith had asked the "wrong question" about why the country had become a "guided democracy". Far from failing, Mr Benda said that Indonesia might be "adjusting... to its own identity" and finding "a way back to its own moorings", drawing on a rich history of kingship and elaborate hierarchy and etiquette.

A few commentators have located Mr Widodo’s move to bring in Mr Prabowo within the Javanese tradition of power play and nuance, seeing the Indonesian president as strengthening his own position while maintaining harmony and balance. The more vehement critics might want to ponder this interpretation and ask whether there is in fact no reason to suppose that democracy in Indonesia will evolve in the same way as in the West. That was condemned decades ago by Mr Benda as “automatic historical parallelism”. He was right then – and he is still right today.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National