December 11, 2023
JAKARTA – If you have seen the movie Napoleon, directed by famed moviemaker Ridley Scott, there is one pivotal scene early in the film, where the French general shares the screen with his wife Josephine de Beauharnais.
During the conversation – punctuated by awkward pauses, silence and non-verbal cues –Josephine delivers pivotal lines that Scott puts early in the film in an attempt to make sense of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial and authoritarian tendencies.
“You want to be great? You’re nothing without me. Without me, you’re just a brute,” Beauharnais tells her husband, apparently playing on her husband’s insecurities, who, as the offspring of a minor Corsican nobility, would only be seen as an outsider in French politics and the military establishment.
British actress, Vanessa Kirby, should win an award just for uttering these lines, which she delivers with a perfect mix of contempt and disgust.
The story in Napoleon kicks into high gear soon after this scene with Napoleon launching concerted efforts to insert himself into the new post-revolutionary French politics, culminating in a bloodless coup against the nation’s five-person leadership coalition known as the Directoire.
Only five years later, Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Historians have complained that director Scott took too much creative liberty in his retelling of Napoleon’s story and we can certainly ask if Josephine did actually utter those insults to Napoleon.
Another case in point: the assault on the Egyptian pyramid, which Scott beautifully shot in the film, did not actually happen as the Battle of the Pyramids took place nine miles away from the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Yet, if the life of Napoleon could be our guide, I think we should allow for the possibility that individual players and their petty emotions could change the course of history.
As much as we believe that the progress of history is decided by forces greater than individual actors – social forces like capitalism, the world order or political systems – we should allow for the possibility that a great man and/or woman could have the final say over where a society should go.
After all, Europe, if not the world, would be a different place without the Civil Code, bureaucratic reform or military technology that Napoleon introduced during a decade of his reign in France.
As a matter of fact, as in the case of Napoleon, we should allow room for insecurity, jealousy and anger to be the impetus for major political decisions.
There’s of course plenty of room for emotions in Indonesian politics and we can certainly assume that much of what has happened here in the lead-up to the 2024 general election; from the proposal to extend the presidential term, the decision to change the election law just to allow for members of the presidential family to run in the election to the deployment of government workers to help one presidential ticket – the wholesale decline of Indonesia’s quality of democratic – is actually the consequence of clashes of ego and insecurities?
It was only in January this year that we first witnessed Indonesian politics’ “you’re-nothing-without-me” moment.
This was when Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri delivered her speech at the 50th anniversary of the nationalist political party in the presence of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who until then has been a loyal member of the party.
“Pak Jokowi, please don’t be too confident. Without the PDI-P, you’re nothing,” Megawati said in the speech, reminding the audience that it was the PDI-P who nominated Jokowi, a political outsider who begun his career as a mayor of a small town in Central Java, in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.
This is the moment when ties between Megawati and Jokowi began to sour and many political analysts have deemed the speech as the fuel that has fired President Jokowi’s anger toward the party.
Only three months after the speech, when the PDI-P announced then Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo as its pick for presidential candidate in next year’s election, the President was not involved in the deliberation and was forced to cut short his Idul Fitri holiday to join only the announcement of the decision.
We know that after the move, Jokowi began to recalibrate his support for the PDI-P and the presidential candidacy of Ganjar, before making the move to quietly back the presidential bid of his one-time political rival, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
President Jokowi has not openly backed Prabowo but the decision to allow his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka to run as vice presidential candidate speaks volumes about his position.
And while the decision may look like a cold and calculated move to influence the outcome of next year’s presidential election, “petty” emotions were certainly part of the equation.
If we are to believe a number of media reports that suggest the decision to nominate Gibran was the handiwork of First Lady Iriana, we can assume that motherly instincts played a part in influencing that outcome.
Iriana was reported to be more determined to nominate Gibran after seeing how her husband was being treated by the PDI-P, especially after Megawati made the “you-are-nothing” comment in January.
She was also reported to be furious with the treatment received by Gibran when he was summoned by the PDI-P leadership in May this year to give clarification for his frequent meetings with Prabowo.
As thing now stands, there is only little chance that rapprochement can happen between President Jokowi and Megawati and we can only expect that tensions will rise leading up to the Feb. 14 balloting.
We can only hope that with every major player emotionally invested in the presidential race, the final outcome does not harm our democracy.
We know from history that a petty insult can turn someone into a tyrant.