This year’s Indonesian presidential election has become a close and polarising race, splitting the electorate almost down the middle. Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s once seemingly unassailable lead over rival Prabowo Subianto has dwindled since April’s legislative election to the point where the race is now too close to call.
Beyond these figures, campaigning has also appeared unusually nasty, with each camp’s supporters displaying open disdain for their rival. Jokowi in particular has been targeted by ruthless smear campaigning.
This polarisation is consistent with the stark choice facing Indonesians over the way the country will be governed. Admittedly, both Jokowi and Prabowo promise to improve the welfare of citizens, including higher income, more jobs, better education and health, and opportunities for social mobility.
On some of the substantive points too where the candidates’ backgrounds and supporting coalitions suggest clear differences – religious intolerance, for example – they claim to be the same.
But at a more fundamental level, Indonesians face a choice between a president who promises to govern with them, and one who would govern over them. Neither candidate is concealing this choice – it is fundamental to their respective image and appeal.
Jokowi’s appeal rests on the perception that he is a new-style politician who meets the people directly and hears their concerns. He presents a man-of-the-people image, captured in his campaign slogan: ‘Jokowi is us”.
His campaign trademark is walking among the public in markets and neighbourhoods; he touts such visits as part of a populist characterisation of democracy as “listening to the people’s voice and implementing it”.
Jokowi’s trademark of meeting the people stirs strong passions. On his visit to Papua at the beginning of the campaigning, I saw people stand for hours at a local market waiting to greet him, only for him to be forced to abort his visit as the crowd thronged around him the moment he arrived.
But a section of Jokowi’s committed support also derives from passionate rejection of the authoritarian governance that some feel Prabowo stands for.
Whereas Jokowi is a product of Indonesia’s democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Prabowo is firmly part of the authoritarian-era establishment.
His detractors fear his presidency would see a return to unaccountable power concentrated in the hands of just a few, and a lack of respect for basic human rights because of Prabowo’s chequered track record during the tenure of his then father-in-law, former president Suharto.
Such feelings have seen Jokowi’s supporters explicitly lay claim to the moral high ground, using the slogan “I stand on the right side” in a popular social media avatar.
Prabowo’s campaign platform has done little to ease such fears. His leitmotif has been the promise of firm leadership, drawing on his military past.
He makes no claim to be one of the people. Instead, he seeks their adulation. He has arrived at campaign events in helicopters, stands on open-top vehicles waving to supporters, and often ends campaign rallies by being carried atop shoulders though the crowd.
Representative democracy is not a key part of his agenda. Prabowo’s campaign statement, for example, makes only a passing nod to democratic governance at the outset, and includes no specific measures to strengthen representative institutions among its governance reforms.
Indeed, elements of his agenda are anti-democratic. He has called for an end to direct elections for local leaders, preferring a return to having these leaders selected by local parliaments.
More seriously, he has repeatedly stated his preference for Indonesia’s original 1945 Constitution. A return to this Constitution would concentrate power in the president, as it would remove the checks and balances essential to democratic rule.
Nevertheless, Prabowo does not admit to being against democracy per se, and it is unlikely his supporters see him as a threat to democratic rule. Instead, many of Mr Prabowo’s supporters believe that strong, decisive leadership is precisely the jolt that Indonesia needs in order to become a prosperous country and, in Prabowo’s words, to become an “Asian tiger”.
Such leadership appeals because of public disappointment with the inability of successive governments to push for reform, and impatience at the slow speed with which laws are passed and decisions are made.
Many blame this on indecisive leadership – as exemplified by incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Prabowo’s brand of leadership, however, promotes a patrimonial model of governance. The manifesto of his political party states that liberal democracy has caused political instability counterproductive to the nation’s development. The remainder of the manifesto’s section on politics is focused on the need for strong leadership to remedy this situation, with the section closing by saying the party will prioritise prosperity over complete freedom.
On a personal level, whereas Jokowi in the first presidential debate chose a populist definition of democracy as listening to the people, Prabowo commented that the people needed to learn to use their vote responsibly.
This polarising election thus bears enormous implications for Indonesia’s future. The Indonesian people are choosing not just between two very different candidates and their promises. Fundamentally, they are choosing between two opposing beliefs on the role of the president and his relationship with the people.
One candidate believes that the president’s mandate is to represent the voice of the people. The other believes that the president should guide his people to the right path.
It is this choice that makes the 9 July polls such a high-stakes election.
This article was first published in the The Straits Times (link is external).