Voters face stark choice in Indonesia polls

Jakarta governor Joko Widodo and former general Prabowo Subianto are locked in a close, polarising presidential race.

Jakarta, Indonesia – Voters in this sprawling archipelago nation face a choice between stark opposites in Wednesday’s presidential elections.

Indonesia’s two presidential hopefuls are a study in contrasts: Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the soft-spoken governor of Jakarta and an outsider to the country’s political elite, is facing off against Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant general and wealthy businessman who has run an energetic, nationalist campaign.

The election marks the first time in which Indonesia’s 187 million voters will replace one directly elected president with another.

The vote comes as the country’s economy – the largest in southeast Asia – has begun to slow, and many voters say they are fed up with a spate of corruption scandals.

Jokowi had been the clear frontrunner for months, but his once-massive lead in the polls has shrivelled.

A poll released by the Indonesian Survey Institute on Monday found Jokowi hanging on to a 3.6-point lead over Prabowo, with eight percent of voters undecided.

The ‘strong’ versus the ‘ordinary’

Prabowo has said Indonesia needs a powerful leader and expressed his support for returning the country to its 1945 constitution, which entails broad presidential powers.

The former military man has a controversial past, dismissed from Indonesia’s armed forces in 1998 for his role in abducting several activists.

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s sudden rise to national prominence and self-portrayal as a down-to-earth man of the people has surprised Indonesia’s political world, where most high-level politicians come from the country’s elite.

But others worry that he lacks the requisite experience to rule.

The close contest has split voters in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, many of whom have strong opinions on the two contenders.

Slamet Masdar, a 71-year-old Jakartan who served in Indonesia’s navy, will vote for Prabowo because he “is a firm guy” who has the fortitude needed to root out corruption. “Jokowi is a good guy, a clean guy,” he conceded – but argued that he does not have the resume to be president.

At Jokowi’s vigorous final campaign rally at a stadium in central Jakarta, vocational high school teacher Hadi Sukarno described Jokowi as a “kind, ordinary citizen” who has been able to bring about “real action” as governor of Jakarta.

‘Black campaign’

The run-up to the election in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country has seen Jokowi subjected to smears that he is Christian and ethnically Chinese.

Jokowi told Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen that this “black campaign” has been responsible for his decline in the polls.

But pollsters like Dodi Ambardi, the executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute, also attribute the race’s tightening to missteps, saying Jokowi “does not have a very centralised and well-funded campaign team” and that his PDI-P party seems “half-hearted” about supporting its own candidate.

By contrast, he said Prabowo’s well-organised campaign has been “leading the discourse” as the polls approach.

Markets’ reaction

Global investors are paying close attention to Wednesday’s results in this resource-rich nation.

Although both candidates have voiced support for nationalist economic policies, markets seem bullish on Jokowi, with expectations he will implement business-friendly measures and eliminate costly fuel subsidies.

Ubedilah Badrun, the director of Indonesian think tank Puspol, said a smooth transition of power in the election could have beneficial effects on the broader region, noting that Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement in 1998 influenced a similar reformist push in neighbouring Malaysia.

Indonesia, which was ruled by authoritarian leader Suharto for more than three decades until he was toppled by protests in 1998, is today regarded as among the most vibrant democracies in southeast Asia.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera