Losing face: What the Ratna Sarumpaet farce means for her and Prabowo Subianto’s presidential campaign

Ratna Sarumpaet (R) meeting with presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to tell him about her fake assault. Photo: Twitter / @fadlizon

While Indonesians won’t vote for their next president until April’s election, it may turn out that the outcome was cemented by a political scandal involving Ratna Sarumpaet in early October 2018.

The 70-year-old campaigner for Gerindra Chairman Prabowo Subianto and running mate Sandiaga Uno told a lie so audacious that when it was revealed, it managed to temporarily steal the nation’s attention away from both the devastating earthquake-tsunami in Central Sulawesi and the rupiah surpassing the IDR15,000 per US dollar mark.

(The latter could have been, and could still be, a great ammunition for the opposition to attack President Joko Widodo and his campaign since economic reform has been the centerpiece of Prabowo’s campaign.)

In case you missed this bizarre farce, Ratna told her fellow campaigners and Prabowo himself that she had recently been assaulted by a group of unidentified men. A photo of what was supposedly her battered face went viral online and Prabowo and others in his coalition called upon the police to bring her attackers to justice.

But a police investigation into her claim quickly concluded that the bruises in her photo were the side effects of a recent facial liposuction procedure and that her entire story had huge holes in it, indicating the whole thing had been falsified.

Ratna’s lie — which she finally fessed up to yesterday — is perhaps up there with former House Speaker Setya Novanto’s fake car crash last year as the most ridiculous fabricated story in modern day Indonesian politics. The public is deservedly angry and this one lie could lead to dire consequences for both Ratna herself and Prabowo’s campaign.

Ratna

Ratna, a senior member of Prabowo-Sandiaga’s campaign team, has been an outspoken critic of Jokowi’s administration. She was also among several anti-government politicians, alongside the equally controversial musician-cum-politician Ahmad Dhani, to be arrested and questioned for alleged treason over a plot to overthrow Jokowi in 2016.

Starting her career as an actress, Ratna has a long history of political activism stretching back to the Suharto era, but in recent years she has become an influential figure and icon among Islamic hardliner-affiliated opposition groups, such as the controversial #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ReplaceThePresident) movement. However, it’s doubtful she will play any part in Prabowo’s campaign in the future as the former military general doesn’t seem to want to touch her with a 20-foot pole following the reveal of her lie.

In fact, Prabowo has, unsurprisingly, thrown her under the bus, announcing during a press conference last night that he has asked her to resign from the campaign team, which she accepted. In other words, this might be the last we see of Ratna for some time in the Indonesian political sphere, at least until after the 2019 presidential election.

But that doesn’t mean Ratna’s troubles are over as she could still be facing legal repercussions over her lie.

National Police Spokesman Inspector General Setyo Wasisto yesterday said Ratna could face criminal liabilities for making up the story, though he did not specify which statues she may have violated. Others, particularly Jokowi supporter groups, say they are going to file civil lawsuits against Ratna, arguing that her lie was defamatory towards the president and his campaign given that the initial perception by many was that the fabricated assault was ordered by her political rivals.

Far more serious, however, is the chance that the police’s investigation into her fake assault may lead to another investigation for charity fraud. Eagle-eyed netizens noticed in the police report for Ratna’s fake assault (which was leaked onto social media) that one bank account that she used to pay for her plastic surgery was the same as one she used to accept donations for the victims of the Lake Toba ferry disaster in June. The police have yet to open an investigation into this finding, but, if true, fraud is an offense punishable by up to four years in prison under Article 378 of the KUHP.

Prabowo

The Ratna episode presented a lose-lose situation for the losing candidate in the 2014 presidential election. If he was in on the lie, then that obviously isn’t something the voting public could accept. But Prabowo’s credibility could also be seriously questioned if he admitted to both employing Ratna and believing her audacious story without any verification.

Prabowo went the latter route, proclaiming his innocence during a press conference last night but nevertheless apologizing to the public for sharing information that he and his campaign team did not fact check.

How the public, especially opposition supporters and undecided voters, react to Prabowo’s apology may determine whether or not he even has a fighting chance against Jokowi next April. One recent poll showed him trailing Jokowi by close to 30 percent and who knows how much worse it could get now after the reveal of Ratna’s lie.

Perhaps his most loyal of Prabowo’s supporters can point to his apology as evidence of his grace (in that he is able to admit his faults, unlike a certain leader of the free world). But, yet again, it can’t be ignored that Prabowo’s credibility has taken a serious beating because of Ratna.

Denny JA, founder of renowned political pollster Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI), says public perception for Prabowo has gone on a negative spiral.

“Ratna Sarumpaet’s lie is on the level of a scandal. That’s because she said it deliberately to create chaos in the country. In soccer, this would be a red card,” he told Detik, adding, “The effect is that the electorate is now more negative towards Prabowo. Why? Because this shows Prabowo’s team can be easily fooled.”

Understandably, Jokowi’s campaign team is having a field day with the news. One Jokowi campaigner even challenged Prabowo to step down from the presidential race over Ratna’s lie if he is “masculine” enough, adding that if he doesn’t, he would be in “the same class as Ratna Sarumpaet”.

It would be highly surprising for Prabowo to accept that challenge, but, like Ratna, he may have to contend with a criminal investigation or civil lawsuits due to Indonesia’s laws against spreading false information. Prabowo’s name was included among other opposition politicians, including his running mate Sandiaga Uno, Gerindra Deputy Chairman Fadli Zon and Gerindra politician Rachel Maryam, for helping to spread the misinformation in official police reports already filed by Jokowi supporter groups.

That said, police complaints against rival politicians like these are quite common and rarely result in prosecution. So far, the police have only indicated that Ratna may face criminal charges, not the people she supposedly tricked into spreading her lie.

Meanwhile, while Prabowo is busy cleaning up his messy household, Jokowi has been winning plaudits for his multiple visits to disaster-struck Central Sulawesi, most recently for a moment caught on video in which he tried to console a little boy who had lost his mother.

Should Jokowi secure reelection next year, Ratna Sarumpaet’s lie could go down as a landmark moment in Indonesian political history, serving as the nail in the coffin of Prabowo’s campaign.

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