FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Indonesia's two presidential candidates in tight battle
, June 7, 2014
On July 7, Indonesians will go to the polls in an election which will have important implications for the whole of South-East Asia, and Australia.
The presidential election follows legislative elections which took place last April.
In those elections, no party secured a majority of seats in the People’s Representative Council, but the largest groupings were Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party — Struggle) with 19 per cent; Golkar (the party of former President Suharto) 15 per cent; Gerindra (Greater Indonesia Movement) 12 per cent; and retiring President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, 10 per cent.
In Indonesia’s political system, most authority is vested in the elected president, but candidates for president must be supported by parties commanding at least 20 per cent of the electorate.
As none of the main parties secured 20 per cent of the vote in the April legislative elections, they needed to form coalitions behind particular candidates for the presidency.
After months of horse-trading, the major parties have now settled behind two candidates: Joko Widodo, the popular mayor of Jakarta, and Prabowo Subianto, leader of Gerindra, a businessman and, earlier, lieutenant-general in the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).
Both are formidable figures, and represent different forces in Indonesian society.
Widodo, a member of Megawati’s party, was born in Surakarta, a city in central Java far from the bright lights of the capital, Jakarta, where he attended school. He later attended one of Indonesia’s top universities, where he studied engineering.
Returning to Surakarta, he was a small businessman, before deciding to stand for election as mayor. Elected in 2005, he immediately embarked on an energetic policy of developing the city’s natural attractions, countering corruption, visiting poor areas in person, and improving public and civic amenities.
His strong leadership style was based on building a personal relationship with the people of his city, and a can-do style of getting things done. He modelled many of his reforms on European cities which he had visited on business, and had Surakarta nominated as a member of the Organisation of World Heritage Cities.
In October 2008 he hosted the organisation’s meeting in Surakarta.
Even before the elections for mayor of Jakarta were held in 2012, he was widely touted as a front-running candidate.
In the event, he defeated the incumbent mayor, and took office in 2012.
Immediately, he set about tackling some of the city’s major problems, including a road gridlock, inadequate municipal sewerage and poorer people’s lack of access to the city’s healthcare program.
His record in these areas was generally positive, but sections of the media said he had moved too fast to try to solve problems, raising expectations which could not be met.
Nevertheless, he has a good track record, and represents the underclass of Indonesian society.
On the other hand, Prabowo Subianto is wealthy, is closely aligned with Indonesia’s powerful political elite and has strong links with the armed forces, the TNI, dating back to his years of military service.
His father was an economist, and his grandfather was the founder of the Indonesian State Bank (Bank Negara Indonesia) and one of the leaders of the pro-independence movement in the 1940s.
His father urged him to join the army, which he joined in 1970 and served for 28 years. He married the daughter of President Suharto, but the marriage did not last.
He was involved in many of the most controversial aspects of Indonesian military operations in that period, particularly, the attempt to suppress the independence movement in East Timor (1975-99), the brutal campaign against the Free Papua Movement in West Papua, and the civil unrest which surrounded the resignation of President Suharto in 1998.
Although his involvement in these issues caused some concern in the West, in Indonesia they are regarded as proof of his patriotism. The TNI is generally very highly regarded in Indonesia, as one of the pillars of society and a body which has united a nation comprising an archipelago of hundreds of islands.
Prabowo rose to the rank of lieutenant-general, but, following the resignation of Suharto, resigned from the army. He went into business with his brother, buying a pulp and paper plantation in Kalimantan, which has expanded into a complex business empire.
He has therefore strong links to Jakarta’s financial elite, and has cultivated ties with farmers through the Indonesian Farmers Association, small retailers through the Traditional Market Traders’ Association, and a martial arts association. He has been elected president of all three organisations.
He has also cultivated ties with the Islamic leadership in Indonesia, and his presidency is supported by four small Islamic parties.
The elections in July are a contest between power and patriotism on one hand, and youth and energy on the other. It will be a close race.