Indonesia smear campaign nips at election frontrunner Joko Widodo

A social media campaign is circulating rumors that the popular Jakarta governor is an ethnic Chinese Christian. The majority Muslim country holds presidential elections in July.

Dita Alangkara/AP
Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo, left, and his running mate Jusuf Kalla, right, ride bicycles on their way to registering their candidacy to the General Election Commission's office in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, May 19, 2014.

Two months before a presidential election in Indonesia, the slam-dunk favorite candidate finds himself in a surprisingly tight race.

Jakarta’s reformist governor, Joko Widodo, has topped approval ratings with double-digit leads over potential rivals for at least a year. Now that momentum is stalling for the man many saw as a shoo-in to lead Indonesia's promising, but still unconsolidated, democracy. While still popular, Mr. Widodo is battling a smear campaign that plays on religious sensitivities in a multi-faith country of 247 million people, of whom 88 percent are Muslim.

The mud slinging, known here as a “black campaign,” accuses Widodo of covering up his true race and religion and of promoting religious minorities during his career. Religion and ethnicity have repeatedly been a flashpoint in Indonesia. The presidential election will be held July 9. 

Pictures started circulating on social media in mid-May of what purports to be Widodo's marriage certificate. The certificate claims to show that Widodo is of Chinese descent and originally a Christian. Anonymous messages sent via Blackberry message groups accuse Widodo of downplaying Islam.

“He enjoys promoting Christians,” read one message. “Please Muslims. Pray for our country.”

Widodo, who says he is a secular Muslim, initially ignored the attacks. On Sunday he addressed them for the first time, saying that he and his wife had been on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site. His campaign will launch an investigation into the source of the documents, which they call counterfeits, and taking unspecified legal action, according to the Jakarta Post.

Parliamentary poll setback

The rumors may be gaining traction after Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) polled lower than expected at parliamentary elections in April, says Fauzi Ichsan, senior economist and head of government relations at Standard Chartered Bank in Jakarta. “The first knock against Jokowi was PDI-Ps election result,” he says, referring to Widodo by his popular nickname. “The black campaigns are sort of feeding on that at least for some people.” 

Even before the smear campaign, Widodo’s support had been ebbing. In April, Widodo was the preferred candidate of 52 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting in Jakarta, down two percentage points from the previous month. His closest rival, retired Gen. Prawbowo Subianto, saw support surge eight percentage points during the same period to 36 percent, as he kept to a tightly scripted campaign and limited press interviews.

The smear campaign isn't solely targeting Widodo, either: His rival Mr. Subianto has been accused of taking citizenship in Jordan after he went into exile in the late 1990s. "Smear campaigns are a sign of panic. Don’t spread lies and don’t make baseless accusations,” Subianto told reporters recently. 

Widodo’s popularity and track record of tackling pocketbook issues like poverty, corruption, and transportation in Jakarta may be enough to sway voters, no matter his religion.

“I don’t care about the religion of Jokowi or his parents,” said Nani, a Jakarta school teacher who gave only her first name. “What we want is a good president, who cares about Indonesian society and the country.”

Others still support the frontrunner, but mention their preference for Muslim candidates. “For Jokowi? I don’t care” about his religion, said Z. Muhammed Ali, a business owner in Palembang, the regional capital of South Sumatra province. “But I know that if I had a choice between a good Muslim and good non-Muslim I would choose the first one.”

Ineffectual campaigning 

An ineffective campaign may also be contributing to Widodo's doldrums, says veteran Indonesian analyst Kevin O'Rourke. A politician who was famous for his impromptu visits to government offices and slums is nowadays more often seen on television courting political heavyweights for support.

“He’s spending too much time fraternizing with elites and spouting anachronistic rhetoric instead of visiting constituents and speaking in no-nonsense terms about real problems like corruption and services," says Mr. O'Rourke.

Nor did Widodo's party capitalize on his popularity for April's parliamentary elections: few campaign posters featured his picture. PDI-P polled first, but got fewer seats than projected. Under Indonesia's election rules, parties need to clear a threshold in parliament in order to nominate a presidential candidate. 

To be sure, July's election is still Widodo’s to lose. For his running mate, he tapped former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, a businessman and former chairman of Indonesia's second-largest political party, who has the national economic experience that Widodo lacks. Widodo has also underlined his everyman image by wearing the trademark checkered shirts he wore during his successful Jakarta gubernatorial campaign.

The worry is that Widodo may have frittered away the big win he needs in order to push through painful economic reforms, says Mr. Ichsan of Standard Chartered. “People want the next government to be more solid than the current coalition.”

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