Over the weekend, President Joko Widodo went on an innuendo offensive against his electoral challenger, Prabowo Subianto, by implying that his rival’s campaign was using a “Russian propaganda” strategy of misinformation, with the aid of “foreign consultants” to divide the nation in order to win the election. The implicit allegations were denied not only by Prabowo’s campaign, but also earned an official response from the Russian government.
The Twitter account for the Russian Embassy in Indonesia tweeted the following “in regards to several publications in the mass media about the suggestion that ‘Russian propaganda’ was being used by certain political forces in Indonesia”:
Kami menggarisbawahi bahwa posisi prinsipil Rusia adalah tidak campur tangan pada urusan dalam negeri dan proses-proses elektoral di negara-negara asing, termasuk Indonesia yang merupakan sahabat dekat dan mitra penting kami.
— Russian Embassy, IDN (@RusEmbJakarta) February 4, 2019
“As we know, the term ‘Russian Propaganda’ was coined in 2016 in the United States during the presidential election. This term has no basis in reality,”
“We underline the principal position of Russia is not to intervene in domestic affairs and electoral processes of foreign countries, including Indonesia, our close friend and important partner.”
President Jokowi never accused Russia of directly meddling in Indonesia’s election and he clarified at several points that he was specifically referring to a campaign using the Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” propaganda model outlined in a 2016 paper by the Rand Corporation, a US-based policy think tank.
(Also, despite their declared “principal position” of non-intervention in other countries’ elections, there’s a lot of evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election, as well as others).
Nonetheless, Fadli Zon, a deputy speaker in the House of Representatives (DPR) from Prabowo’s Gerindra party, took it upon himself to apologize on behalf of President Jokowi in a response to the Russian embassy’s tweets.
— Fadli Zon (@fadlizon) February 5, 2019
I beg forgiveness for the statement of President @jokowi, which was hasty.
Although apologizing on behalf of your president may seem an outrageous move to some, we can’t say it surprises us coming from Fadli Zon. On top of being one of Jokowi’s loudest critics, Fadli has also shown himself to be quite the fanboy of Russian President Vladimir Putin (after seemingly letting go of his previous fandom for US President Donald Trump).
But Jokowi’s campaign certainly didn’t appreciate it. “Fadli Zon is lebay (being excessive), what is he apologizing for?” asked the campaign’s deputy secretary, Raja Juli Antoni (Toni), as quoted by Detik yesterday.
Toni hit back by saying that Jokowi was not being hasty when he spoke, as compared to Prabowo, who was actually hasty in accepting the hoax perpetrated by his former campaigner Ratna Sarumpaet (who caused Prabowo’s campaign major controversy by falsely claiming to have been beaten by mysterious assailants last year). He also argued that Fadli was trying to shift attention away from the fact that their campaign had been using a strategy based in hoaxes and misinformation.
A spokesperson for Prabowo’s campaign, Andre Rosiade, defended Fadli, noting that the deputy speaker is also in charge of foreign relations and that he simply wanted to maintain good diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Russia.
Jokowi first made the accusations about the use of Russian-style propaganda and foreign consultants last weekend, using the attack to rebut accusations that he himself was a tool of foreign powers. Since then, both campaigns have launched attacks accusing the other side of utilizing foreign political consultants, though neither side’s claims have been substantiated.
However, Prabowo was known to have used a very prominent American political consultant in his 2014 campaign against Jokowi, a man named Rob Allyn who had worked for George W. Bush and Mexico’s Vicente Fox, among others. Allyn was accused of circulating widespread smear campaigns against Jokowi accusing the president of being a Communist, ethnically Chinese and not a Muslim, all rumors that continue to dog the president to this day.
Allyn denied the accusations at the time, saying he only worked with Prabowo to create positive TV advertising.