Asia-Pacific

Old foes set to face off in Indonesia election

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Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto will go head-to-head for the presidency on 17 April.

When Indonesia goes to the polls on 17 April, it will be one of the biggest election efforts the world has ever seen.

More than 193 million people will cast ballots in the country’s first ever simultaneous presidential, parliamentary and local legislative elections.

Across the country, more than 245,000 candidates are running for 20,000 different seats, but for most, the focus will boil down to just one winner: the country’s next president.

Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, right, and Prabowo Subianto.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto are the same two candidates who fought for leadership at the last presidential election in 2014, but subtle shifts in Indonesia’s social and economic landscape means both men have been forced to adapt.   

The past five years have seen the growing strength of hardline Islamist groups weaving into the political landscape.

Mr Widodo's pick of Ma’ruf Amin for his running mate surprised many. Mr Amin, a conservative Muslim cleric who has issued fatwas against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual minorities, has been criticised by some human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.

Small-town mayor turned president

Incumbent Mr Widodo is no longer a fresh face in national politics. The former businessman-turned mayor who built himself up from humble beginnings now has an established voter base, more party support and a track record for voters to judge him on.

“Jokowi has not been caught in any corruption scandal, and that’s a big deal in Indonesia,” Professor Vedi Hadiz of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne told SBS News.

Jokowi has not been caught in any corruption scandal, and that’s a big deal in Indonesia.

- Vedi Hadiz, Academic

The president’s campaign has focused on trying to convince voters he has a track record of “getting things done,” in areas such as health care, poverty alleviation and infrastructure, he adds.

“His very, very expensive infrastructure program, building roads and so on, are also considered to be things that show he is someone who cares about the daily lives of the average person.”

Joko Widodo
Mr Widodo with his supporters.
Getty Images

Some who voted for Mr Widodo in 2014 have become jaded. Social media sites have helped activate a growing ‘golput’ movement, fuelled by those who plan to abstain or ‘donkey’ vote this election.

“They’re disappointed in what they’ve got from a Jokowi presidency,” Dr Ross Tapsell from Australian National University told SBS News.

“Five years ago, they campaigned on his behalf. They included human rights activists, a lot of creatives such as actors and singers.”

Indonesians vote by piercing the logo of their chosen candidate on a ballot paper. The name ‘golput’ comes from 'golongan putih', meaning 'white group', in reference to piercing the white part of the ballot instead. 

Some in the movement have been outspoken against Mr Widodo’s lack of action on issues such as LBGT rights. Many are young, urban millennials who had high hopes for democratic reform under a man once seen to be Indonesia’s answer to Obama.

“It’s still a minority, a very small minority of people,” says Dr Tapsell.

A political force with a chequered past

As a former military general and son-in-law of former President Suharto, Mr Widodo's opponent Prabowo Subianto has long been a force in Indonesian politics.

He also has a chequered past, forced to step down from his high-ranking military role in 1998 amid accusations of human rights abuses. In heralding his departure at the time, the New York Times named him as "one of Suharto's most aggressive and feared generals".

Prabowo Subianto
Prabowo Subianto addresses his supporters.
Getty Images

His reputation hasn’t stopped his resurrection on the national stage.

“Indonesia tends to have a rather short-term memory,” said Indonesian political analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar, speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney last month.

Mr Subianto, she says, is a present-day favourite with many hardline Muslim groups.

He lost by only a small margin to political newcomer Mr Widodo five years ago; his authoritarian style welcomed by many Indonesians who see it as a strength.

“It’s the strongman syndrome,” Professor Hadiz said. “A lot of Indonesians, though appreciative of democracy, also see aspects of it that are quite unpredictable and chaotic.”

A win for Mr Subianto could bring sweeping change to Indonesia, he said.

“He is not someone you would expect to be upholding human rights and therefore one would worry about the rights of minorities, ethnic and religious.” 

“I don’t think that Prabowo would be successful in eradicating democracy, but I think you would see a lot more democratic regression.”

The nation's many polls currently favour a win for the current man in charge, Jokowi. The voters will have the final say.

Rhiannon Elston will be reporting on the election from Indonesia this month for SBS News. Follow her on Twitter @RhiannonElston

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