Indonesia's choice: the charismatic reformer or the military nationalist

Experts say Wednesday's presidential election is too close to call. Front-runner Joko Widodo, the reformist mayor of Jakarta, has given up an early lead over his rival.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Indonesian presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo runs on the stage after delivering a speech in front of his supporters at Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta on July 5, 2014.

Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy and most populous Muslim-majority nation, will head to the polls Wednesday for a high-stakes presidential election. More than 180 million people are eligible to vote.

This will be the third direct presidential election in Indonesia, which was ruled for nearly three decades by dictator Gen. Suharto, who fell in 1998. After cycling through three presidents in six years, Indonesia gained its footing under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general who won the 2004 election. 

President Yudhoyono, who is ineligible to run again due to term limits, presided over a political system with ingrained patronage and corruption that nonetheless delivered steady economic growth, even during the 2009 global downturn. However, last year saw Indonesia's growth rate falling below 6 percent for the first time since 2010.

This year's election will be pivotal for the direction that Indonesia takes over the next five years.

Who are the candidates?

Joko Widodo is the governor of Jakarta, Indonesia's chaotic capital. His rival, Prabowo Subianto, is a controversial former Army general and businessman who has never held public office. Whoever succeeds will be tasked with reviving a slowing economy and tackling social ills. 

The two candidates are a study in contrasts. Mr. Widodo made his fortune in the furniture business and began his political career as mayor of Surakarta. He is seen as a self-made businessman who prefers plaid shirts to business suits and looks at home talking to vendors in markets. He gained a reputation for dropping in on unsuspecting government offices and firing people who weren’t doing their jobs.

As the Monitor reported in February, Widodo has enjoyed popular support in both Surakarta and Jakarta. 

Widodo’s popularity is evident when he steps off the bus he uses to visit Jakarta’s many slums. Hundreds of residents surge forward to shake his hand amid chants of “Jokowi,” as he’s affectionately known. His aides take notes of the list of their complaints, ranging from the price of beef to rent hikes in public housing. 

Mr. Subianto was previously married to Suharto's daughter. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 2009. Subianto has been accused of human rights violations when he was a commander in the notorious special forces and of abductions of political dissidents during the turmoil leading up to Suharto's ousting. He's the scion of a famous family; his father was a prominent economist and senior advisor to Suharto. 

Subianto has played up his strongman image, hoping to tap into the view supported by some of the population that Indonesia needs a nationalist leader. Widodo and Subianto have similar platforms listing similar priorities in the areas of economics and infrastructure.

Who's the current frontrunner? 

Widodo led with a large margin of more than 30 points early on in the polls, but Subianto has since closed the gap. The Jakarta Globe reports the latest polling numbers give Widodo 47.8 percent of the vote to Subianto’s 44.2 percent. Undecided voters could sway the ultimate outcome.

As the Monitor reported, a confluence of factors led to Subianto's swift rise in the polls.

"Widodo’s once double-digit lead over Subianto has evaporated, according to some polls, in part because he’s been vague about which local government reforms and benefits he would introduce nationally. He was slow to act on a smear campaign suggesting he was a closet Christian, a scandal in a country that is 88 percent Muslim. He can seem wooden and unassuming."

This election could be a photo finish, breaking with the pattern of previous votes. 

“[Direct presidential elections] have always been won by landslides of 60-40 proportions,” wrote Northwestern University professor Jeffrey Winters in an e-mail to the Monitor from Indonesia, where he is observing the election. “This time the contest is extremely close. On the eve of the vote, it is simply too close to call.”

What are they offering to voters? 

While the two candidates may be complete opposites on paper and in person, Mr. Winters argues that the media portrayal of a stark choice between a charismatic reformer and an old guard candidate isn’t accurate.

“These two individuals are very different. But the constellations of social and political forces backing them are remarkably similar. Both have major business interests in their camp. Both have controversial military figures involved in their campaigns,” Winters said. "Whoever wins, this is not a revolutionary moment for Indonesia.”

Kevin O’Rourke, writer and editor of Reformasi Weekly, a newsletter about Indonesia's political climate, sees it differently.

“This is as stark as it can possibly be,” he says. “Indonesia has had a patronage-style government for centuries and now there is a chance for change. Widodo is a democratic figure. He’s the product of the new democratic system that just started taking place in the last decade.”

The campaign has featured high-octane stunts, including Subianto riding a horse into a rally, as well as nasty smear campaigns

"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."

How about the Indonesian media? 

Indonesia’s oldest English-language newspaper, The Jakarta Post, decided to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time in its 31-year history. It describes the election as a “moral choice on the fate of the nation.”

In its July 4 editorial, the Post gave the nod to Widodo and highlighted Subianto’s affiliations with hardline Islamic groups. It also questioned the nation’s memory of events surrounding the downfall of Suharto and the military’s role in East Timor.

We are further perplexed at the nation’s fleeting memory of past human rights crimes. A man who has admitted to abducting rights activists — be it carrying out orders or of his own volition — has no place at the helm of the world’s third-largest democracy.

While many newspapers have endorsed Widodo, Mr. O’Rourke notes that the vast majority of Indonesians get their news from television and many stations and their owners have aligned with Subianto.

Despite the campaign rhetoric, Winters argues that voters should expect “more continuity than change” whatever the election result.

With only one day left before voting, O’Rourke says he can’t make a prediction.

“It’s very much a toss-up."

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