Indonesia’s contrasting choices

Almost 250 million voters in the world’s third largest democracy have a chance to make history on Wednesday.

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia hasn’t seen a presidential candidate like this before.

On Saturday afternoon, more than 50,000 enthusiastic supporters filled Jakarta’s Bung Karno Stadium to hear Joko Widodo, the Jakarta governor popularly known as Jokowi, deliver his final campaign speech before elections next Wednesday.

He arrived on stage to roaring applause wearing the trademark red-and-blue plaid shirt he’s donned throughout the campaign, after a number of big-name musicians including legendary Indonesian rock band Slank, warmed up the crowd.

After all the excitement, Jokowi’s keynote speech lasted barely 10 minutes.

It wasn’t especially impressive, said many in the crowd.

“He needs to improve his communication skills,” conceded Irwan Habsjah. “He’s a simple orator,” said Ikhwan, who declined to give his last name.

But both found this unadorned style refreshing, not off-putting.

A real choice

Voters in Indonesia – a regional heavyweight and the world’s third-largest democracy, with almost 250 million citizens – have a real choice in Wednesday’s poll.

Jokowi’s sole opponent is Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant-general who says Indonesia needs a strong leader and has used high-octane nationalist rhetoric at his campaign rallies.

Unlike Prabowo and many other prominent Indonesian politicians, Jokowi is not a product of the country’s authoritarian New Order era (1966-98), when it was ruled by Prabowo’s former father-in-law, Suharto.

As mayor of the city of Surakarta, Jokowi earned a reputation as a clean politician who was able to get things done, often making impromptu visits to speak with his constituents.

‘Humble and honest’

Supporters at Saturday’s rally used a small handful of adjectives when asked to describe the candidate: humble, honest, untainted, down-to-earth.

“Jokowi] is the same as Obama,” said Atashendartini Habsjah, a chairperson of the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association, after the event, saying she hoped a Jokowi victory would bring change from politics as usual.

The comparisons to US President Barack Obama – who in 2008 rode voters’ desire for ‘hope and change’ to victory – date to 2012, when Jokowi successfully ran for governor of Jakarta.

More parallels have popped up during his presidential campaign.

Both are young-ish politicians with little experience on the national level, who rose to prominence by portraying themselves as fresh alternatives to the old guard.

Both faced off against opponents who made their name in the military, and both have drawn criticism claiming they’re too wet behind the ears to rule.

Perhaps to counter this line of attack, both chose older men [19 years older, in both cases] to be their running mates.

Subjected to smears

Both Jokowi and Obama have been subjected to smears that they are the “other”: Obama was called a closet Muslim, Kenyan and communist while Jokowi has been accused of being a closet Christian, Chinese and communist.

Jokowi implemented universal health care as governor of Jakarta Obama did so after being elected president.

But the most important difference between the two men could be the fact that Obama, unlike Jokowi, didn’t blow a massive lead in the polls in the lead-up to the presidential election.

Jokowi was a clear favourite to win just months ago, but a disorganised campaign and Jokowi’s low-key method of selling himself to voters have enabled Prabowo – an energetic, on-point campaigner – to catch up.

Saturday’s rally and a subsequent presidential debate between the two men was Jokowi’s last chance to check the surge.

From now until Wednesday, his supporters can only hope for change in momentum.