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INDONESIA POLLS: Indonesia's existential contest

Publication Date : 09-07-2014


Today (July 9) Indonesians go to the polls to elect their seventh president, who will also be only the second to be directly elected.

The elections matter a great deal.

250-million-people strong Indonesia is now the world’s 10th largest economy and its largest Muslim democracy.

But South-East Asia’s nascent giant is fragile, beset with chronic inequality, poor infrastructure and endemic corruption.

So while decentralisation has empowered the regions, a firm hand and visionary mind is still needed in Jakarta.

The candidates and their stories are well known.

First on the ballot is the controversial ex-Special Forces General and Soeharto in-law, Prabowo Subianto.  Next is the wildly popular Joko Widodo (Jokowi), a furniture manufacturer and exporter who rose from obscurity to become Governor of Jakarta.

The latest surveys have shown that Jokowi’s lead is down to within the margin of error, perhaps reflective of what’s at stake for Indonesians.

It is true – as cynics say – that both Prabowo are Jokowi are political and economic nationalists, albeit with business-friendly postures.

But the broad similarities in their platforms make the choice between them all the more important.

Because, make no mistake, there is a real difference between Prabowo and Jokowi.

Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Elections is an existential contest.

By their diametrically opposed styles of leadership, the two candidates provide very different visions for Indonesia’s future.

Prabowo has hammered the notion that Indonesia needs tegas (or firm) stewardship and that he is the best – indeed the only – player who can provide this.

His message is one that prioritises a stronger state, one that is active in the economy and assertive in foreign affairs. It is also an angry message – peppered with countless allegations of corruption and theft.

We cannot underestimate the appeal of this message to Indonesians weary of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s indecisiveness and the current political deadlock.

Indeed, the Indonesian state is in a parlous condition.

A side effect of the Reformasi and decentralisation – which have otherwise been blessings for Indonesia – is that power has been fragmented.

Successive administrations post-Soeharto have wilted in the face of relentless media scrutiny and the opposition of vested interests to reform.

A tegas leader like Prabowo may very well be Indonesia’s panacea.

But his chequered past, as well as his proven impatience with the nitty-gritty of democracy, means that Prabowo may lack the moral stature to bring about the renewal he has repeatedly called for.

Also worrying is his embrace of fundamentalist Muslim groups despite his repeated protestations of respect for Indonesia’s pluralism.

Jokowi’s message lacks Prabowo’s bluster but it’s more nuanced.

His call is for a more empowered citizenry, for healthier and better-educated Indonesians with good jobs. He has also called for a Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution), a dramatic mind-set shift that will make Indonesians more process-orientated and have a better work ethic.

Basically, Prabowo’s approach is top-down, while Jokowi’s approach is bottom-up.

Prabowo warns of the dilemmas Indonesia’s direct democracy has brought. Jokowi, in contrast, has embraced these challenges.

He has made it a point of engaging local media in the smallest of towns, stressing their importance as guardians of freedom.

But he has also spoken of the responsibilities of citizenship, of how Indonesians owe it to their country – and themselves – to roll-up their sleeves.

It’s a compelling narrative, but perhaps Jokowi’s admirers are guilty of projecting onto him their hopes and dreams.

Despite being Indonesia’s most popular politician in recent history, he comes across as an enigma for many voters who otherwise love his earthiness.

It remains to be seen if he can work his magic across Indonesia as he did in Solo and Jakarta.

There are also concerns that his presidency will be under the long shadow of his party leader, PDI-P’s Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The race – which some had earlier feared would be marred by voter apathy – has proven to be a true nail-bitter.

As the respected Jakarta Post newspaper wrote in its unprecedented endorsement of Jokowi late last week, this election is now “…a moral choice on the fate of the nation.”

Whatever happens, you can be sure that Indonesia will never be the same again.


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