Indonesians split in cut-throat presidential race

JAKARTA, June 22 — Less than three weeks before Indonesians decide on their next leader, the presidential campaign has shifted into high gear as the two candidates battle it out, gloves off and all.

For Joko Widodo, this means maintaining his lead over his opponent, who in the past two months has climbed steadily in the popularity polls, by calling attention to the latter’s controversial military past.

For Prabowo Subianto, this means closing the gap by continuing to sow seeds of doubts in people’s minds on Jokowi’s capability, integrity and — though not directly — Islamic credentials.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country are bearing the brunt of a highly polarised and vicious political race that — by all accounts — has broken friendships, created family frictions and revealed the true nature of many people.

Social media, a crucial tool for both camps, has contributed to this polarisation by accelerating the spread of information and disinformation, and broadening the reach of opinions made by ordinary people.

More importantly, the election has shown that aside from being a battle of personalities, it is also a reflection of Indonesia being at a crossroad, 16 years after it chose the path of democratisation.  

Take the second debate between the two candidates last Sunday.

To independent pundits, the televised debate exposed the superficiality of Prabowo’s economic platform, as well as his lack of experience in governing, particularly when he couldn’t make a convincing case on questions of central and regional government relationship posed by Jokowi.

The highly exaggerated figures that Prabowo cited to explain the loss of state income from corruption was also embarrassingly denied by the government and the Anti-Corruption Commission the next day. 

But to the undiscerning audience as well as his die-hard supporters, his articulacy, when compared to Jokowi’s rather ponderous and less-than-punchy delivery, won him the debate. Never mind, that the difference in their communication only highlights their contrasting styles of campaigning.

Prabowo is used to massive gatherings involving thousands of people at stadium-like venues, where he makes grand entrances and gives rousing addresses. Jokowi, on the other hand, has distinguished himself from typical presidential campaigns by mainly visiting communities and conducting meet-the-people walkabouts.

The two candidates sell themselves as populists, but the contrast in their personalities can’t be any more glaring.

Coming from an underprivileged background, Jokowi was a successful furniture businessman from Solo, Central Java, who was elected its mayor before becoming Jakarta governor. The father of two wears plain cheap shirts, travels by commercial airlines, and reputedly loathes protocol, including noisy motorcades that are so enjoyed by most VIPs.

In contrast, Prabowo hails from one of the country’s most established families, with father and grandfather being wealthy bankers who served in various positions in the government and a billionaire brother.

Educated abroad, he rose through the ranks in the military at an unusually fast rate, being the son-in-law of the late President Suharto. In 1998, he was cashiered from the military for the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists, a move he claimed was ordered by his superiors.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (right) speaks as his opponent Joko Widodo looks on during a televised debate in Jakarta June 15, 2014. — Picture by Reuters
Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (right) speaks as his opponent Joko Widodo looks on during a televised debate in Jakarta June 15, 2014. — Picture by Reuters

Now divorced and estranged from his only son, he lives alone in a hilltop ranch outside of Jakarta with a stable of 60 horses, guarded by a troop of militia-like young men. He flies in a private jet or helicopter.

Even in more mature democracies, personality plays a bigger role in a presidential election than substantive experience, achievements and visions. But the appeals of both candidates in this election goes deeper than charisma and likeability.

Jokowi represents a new brand of modern leadership that Indonesians are not entirely accustomed to. Supporters are inspired by his integrity, his simplicity, his ability to connect to the ordinary people and his hard-work ethics. His campaign slogan “Indonesia Hebat” (Indonesia Great) has the feel-good quality of Barack Obama’s “Hope”. His call-to-action message “Revolusi Mental” reminds people that progress will only come if each individual is committed to change his or her mindset for the better. 

He was named one of the 50 World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine in March alongside Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former US President Bill Clinton and Myanmar pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

But to his detractors, he is too provincial, not sophisticated enough to be Indonesia’s leader, and a mere proxy of his party. They take issue with his decision to run for president, leaving the Jakarta governor post after only one and a half years (a post he won with, among others, Prabowo’s support).

The former Army Special Forces commander, on the other hand, awes his supporters with his militaristic style and his fiery speeches. He sets himself apart from other political leaders by suggesting he is the Javanese mythical hidden knight who will “save” Indonesia (mostly from foreigners and neo-liberal capitalists in his speeches — though the hardline factions of his supporters interpret the enemy as the Christians, the Chinese and the minorities like the Shiites).

Rhetoric like this strikes fear into Prabowo’s opponents, but even more alarming are his supporters’ aggressive religious and racial tinged smear campaigns against Jokowi.

Though the Jokowi side also has a list of questionable generals and politicians, they are outnumbered by the highly controversial figures, religious hardliners and even thug groups in the Prabowo camp.

He has also made known his intention to return to the 1945 Constitution — effectively repealing all post-reform amendments that were designed to create a stronger system of check and balance — and to name Suharto a national hero.

Surprisingly, the middle class, which is estimated by the Central Statistics Agency at 56.6 per cent of the population, is split in their support for the two candidates.

Director Executive of Indikator Politik Indonesia Burhanuddin Muhtadi attributes their support for Prabowo to emotional reasons, including his fiery characteristic, and the black propaganda against Jokowi. People who think honesty is an indicator of integrity have also gone down from 60 per cent of those sampled in 2013 to 40 per cent, which explained Jokowi’s decline, he said.

Furthermore, a poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute discovered that about 70 per cent of respondents were unaware of the human rights allegations against Prabowo, or his discharge from the army. Many of these might be first-time voters who some estimate to be about 67 million.

Whether they will choose a leader who will usher the country forward, or one who may turn it back on a reverse path of democracy, at least the Indonesian voters are aware that their decision will affect the course of the country’s future.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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