The timing couldn’t have been worse. With Indonesians reeling in horror at another massive earthquake and rescue workers still digging the rubble for survivors, people were side-tracked by a spectacle of national shame.
Once again we are being reminded that our politicians will stop at nothing to score a political point.
Political activist Ratna Sarumpaet is known for her histrionics, executed mostly to draw people’s attention to her attacks on incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Most have been petty, like when she was caught on camera in April threatening city parking officers who impounded her car for wrongful parking.
Many politics watchers felt schadenfreude when her stunt of turning up at a meeting between Minister Luhut Pandjaitan and bereaved family members of victims in the June ferry disaster on Lake Toba, North Sumatra, backfired. When she tried to intervene in the conversation, furious family members accused her of exploiting the tragedy and she was marched out of the meeting.
But this month she plumbed new depths.
It began with a selfie of her swollen face circulating online, with a claim that she had been assaulted for political reasons. The camp of President Jokowi’s rival in next year’s election, Prabowo Subianto, leapt to her defence.
Senior politicians from Prabowo’s Gerindra Party, including lower house deputy speakers, said Ratna had been targeted for her criticism of the president.
The embarrassing episode slid into farce when Prabowo himself chimed in.
After personally meeting with Ratna, Prabowo denounced the attack and promised that he would complain to the national police chief about this “human rights abuse”.
The only problem is that the “assault” never took place and Ratna was lying about the episode.
Her swollen face turned out to be the result of liposuction conducted at a hospital in Jakarta.
Politicians lie all the time, but the Ratna scandal is an abomination simply because it diverted our attention from what mattered most.
Airtime and social media should have been devoted to helping the quake victims in Central Sulawesi, but instead we wasted precious energy on finding out if Ratna regularly went under the knife and if she paid for the procedure using money donated to victims of the ferry disaster.
But desperate times bring desperate measures, and politicians do what they must.
A quick look at the opinion polls helps shed light on the shameful episode.
A reputable Jakarta-based pollster said that the incumbent Jokowi has an unassailable lead of 60.2 per cent over former general Prabowo, who has dropped to 28.7 per cent from 33.2 per cent in May.
Worse for Prabowo, almost 63 per cent of voters thought President Jokowi had done a good job in improving the country’s security while another 40 per cent think that the economy is in better shape compared to last year.
Given that dismal outlook, it’s easy to see why Prabowo and his team were quick to seize on Ratna’s claim of assault.
The brouhaha over the liposuction scandal was in fact the biggest story involving Prabowo since the presidential campaign started on September 23.
In fact, the campaigning has been altogether low key, highlighted by mundane news of the visit to traditional Islamic boarding schools by Prabowo and his running mate, businessman and former deputy governor of Jakarta Sandiaga Uno.
While the pair languish in the shadows, Jokowi has basked in the success of the Asian Games where he managed to paint himself as the youthful leader of a young nation shooting for global success.
Indeed, throughout 2018 Jokowi has masterfully engineered a campaign that paints him as the only viable candidate to lead the country for the next five years, until his second term expires in 2024.
So successful has the campaign been that Jokowi is reluctant to make any move that might hurt his record. Witness the government’s flip-flop on raising the price of fuel, a move that would have endangered his popularity.
During his tenure, Jokowi has gone the extra mile to make sure the price of basic goods is kept relatively low, even if that means paying hefty government subsidies.
It seems he is coasting to a second term, while his rival Prabowo grasps at straws and in doing so shreds his dignity.
M Taufiqurrahman is managing editor of the Jakarta Post.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.