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INDONESIA POLLS: Presidential crossroads

Publication Date : 10-06-2014


Imagine a street-side warung: the men playing chess, a woman preparing drinks, a rickety wall-mounted television and kretek smoke billowing everywhere.

In Jakarta, there are thousands of these tiny venues. There are two in my own quiet residential street.

Both are prosperous in their own way: one is a “destination”, a place to stop in to shoot the breeze.

The second is more of a “kiosk”, where you buy your Sampoerna Mild cigarettes and sachets of shampoo.

Across the republic, from Aceh to Papua, there are hundreds of thousands of these tiny micro-businesses and during election seasons, they become the centre of debate, as information flows from the media, the various patrons and stall-keepers.

It’s a lively dynamic, constantly shifting, unpredictable and rich in local folklore and detail.

With the start, last week, of the official campaign period for Indo­nesia’s presidential polls, I’ve noticed that the warung’s patrons have tended to crowd around the TV much more than ever before.

After all Election Day, on July 9 is less than a month away. So whenever there’s live coverage of one of the big set-piece encounters at the Electoral Commission or a debate, the television becomes the centre of attention.

Watching from my house, I can sense the buzz and the excitement all the more so since this year there are two remarkably strong candidates – both with very pronounced personalities.

In one corner is the people’s favourite, PDI-P’s Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), the Governor of Jakarta, a problem-solving, peripatetic fi­­gure with a ready smile.

He’s gone from working as an obscure furniture manufacturer and exporter from Central Java to one of the republic’s most popular politicians.

Jokowi has never shied away from the public, championing better infrastructure, education and healthcare.

On the other, there’s Gerindra’s Prabowo Subianto, a helicopter-using, former Kopassus (ie Indonesian army special forces) general, a man with a Shakespear­ean sense of his own destiny.

An ex-Suharto son-in-law, he left the military after the Reformasi under a cloud of unproven human rights abuse allegations.

Since then, through sheer grit and determination he has reinven­ted himself as a paragon of nationalistic values.

Running a superbly disciplined campaign, Prabowo speaks not only of boosting Indonesia’s energy independence and food security, but also its sense of pride.

Indeed, their personal narratives are so well-known, they hardly seem worth repeating.

Nonetheless, I get the sense whenever I stop at my street’s warungs and those elsewhere in the city that there are many unanswered questions about the two men. In many respects, both candidates are evenly matched.

Ideologies don’t really feature in this election when you consider the eclectic coalitions behind both men.

Both Jokowi and Prabowo have won support from secularist and Islamist parties.

Under Jokowi’s banner, PKB, the political subsidiary of the traditionalist Islamist Nahdlatul Ulama rubs shoulders with the nationalist NasDem and Hanura parties.

For Prabowo, his former party Golkar has lined up with the Muslim PAN, PKS and PPP parties behind him. But both men have their vulnerabilities.

As noted, Prabowo’s controversial past remains an issue even if it has made little impact amongst his youthful followers.

His willingness to embrace the more extreme religious groups have led some to question his commitment to Indonesia’s pluralism.

Also, Jokowi’s genial personality may not sit well with voters who prefer Prabowo’s passion and intensity. Others have criticised his apparent lack of national-level administrative experience.

When all is said and done, the questions boil down to issues of trust and competence.

Can we trust the general and is the governor competent?

This is all the more important as public faith in the republic’s institutions – particularly its politicians – is at an all-time low.

All its potential – including rising to be the world’s 10th largest eco­nomy – will count for naught if its people do not feel engaged and if its leaders have no viable vision for the future.

Over the next month, answering such questions will be the key challenge facing the two men.

Can Prabowo prove that he will respect Indonesia’s fledgling demo­cracy?

Can the governor display the technocratic savviness that will assuage the doubts about his ability to lead this vast country?

This could very well be the most important presidential election in Indonesia’s history.

No wonder the warung-goers had their eyes glued to the screens.


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