Puppets and their puppet masters

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – Over the course of the campaign period for this year’s presidential election, the president and his men have lodged endless accusations against the Prabowo campaign team for producing hoaxes and fake news.  There have also been many allegations of the Prabowo camp being guilty of making slanderous remarks, and the president’s handlers in the cabinet and his apparatus have not been shy of using legal tools to imprison critics of the Jokowi administration.

More recently, Jokowi’s campaign team went public with yet more spurious allegations, saying they had evidence that a Russian political consultant was working for the opposition.   They even insinuated the Russians were using the same tactics they employed to influence the American elections that brought Donald Trump to power.  In a recent gathering in Surabaya, Jokowi went further, saying “there’s a campaign team that has been preparing…Russian propaganda, which constantly spews…slander, sins and hoaxes.”

It all reads like an entertaining Tom Clancy novel, but alas, it is pure fiction.

Where exactly how or why the row erupted is still a mystery, but we can make a few educated guesses.

Starting a few weeks ago, on January 14 at the Jakarta Convention Center, where Prabowo convened an American-style town hall meeting to deliver his vision for a better Indonesia, there appeared a strange video on the Internet showing a foreigner greeting the candidate before he entered the convention hall.  The video production was filled with expletives, asking who was this strange person suddenly appearing out of nowhere.  Very quickly, the video went viral, leading many Jokowi supporters to speculate the foreigner must have been working for the Prabowo campaign team.

Organizers of the event have stated unequivocally that the person in question was a member of the Russian diplomatic corps. Many other dignitaries from foreign embassies were also invited, and attended.  This has also been clarified by the Russian embassy, which recently responded to the president’s accusations by stating “we underline that the principal position of Russia is not to interfere in the internal affairs and electoral processes of other countries, including Indonesia, which is our close friend and important partner.”

Backing down after his making hay about “Russian propaganda”, Jokowi tried to fix the mess he created by saying “We are not referring to Russia as a country in this case.  This is not a matter of state affairs.  President Putin and I have a very good relationship.”

Obviously the sequence of events suggests an entirely different story. Aiming to use false news to discredit the Prabowo campaign, the appearance of a Russian at a Prabowo campaign event was engineered in a calculated manner to suggest there was a dark hand behind the Prabowo team.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Using techniques from Propaganda 101 to suggest a Trump-like scenario was taking place, now the Jokowi team finds itself scrambling to extricate itself from the diplomatic mess it created.

Interestingly enough, the Prabowo team admits to having used foreign political consultants in past elections.  Other candidates in previous Indonesian elections have done the same, and it has been common practice in other democracies, as well.  Hiring foreign expertise should not be cause for concern unless, of course, they resort to trickery and illegal means to help their clients win elections.

Even Jokowi himself is reported to have used an American political consultant—Stanley Greenberg, who is known as a skilled pollster and strategist and has worked for the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and John Kerry, lists on his web page President Joko Widodo as one of his clients.   Having done so is not necessarily a cause for protest.  But when the president and his team makes false accusations, insinuating Russians are behind a clandestine operation to spread fake news and Prabowo is a “foreign puppet” when, in fact, the candidate employing a foreign consultant is none other the president himself, then Jokowi deserves to be roundly criticized for being a hypocrite.

The entire lurid affair raises another question:  what, exactly, compelled the president to resort to such trickery?  The obvious answer is he will do whatever he thinks he needs to do to win the election.  But we think there is another reason, which stems from the Prabowo team having criticized his administration for being too cozy with Beijing or, as others have put it, being a foreign puppet.  In other words, Jokowi simply wanted to turn the tables on Prabowo.

All of this, in the end, should provide for interesting material in the upcoming presidential debate, which will touch upon the issue of infrastructure.   This will be an opportunity for the candidates to discuss their views on China’s increasing role in developing Indonesia’s infrastructure through its Belt Road Initiative, or BRI.  It should also be an opportunity to discuss the role of Huawei in Indonesia’s telecommunications sector, who has been signed on by state-owned Telkomsel to provide equipment for its upcoming 5G network.  Both the BRI and the risks of using Huawei 5G technology have sparked intense debates across the world. Yet, the Jokowi administration has remained, until now, conspicuously silent.