Jokowi or Prabowo? A stark choice

A. Lin Neumann
Indonesia’s presidential poll offers voters two dramatically different leadership styles

Will it be the old warrior or the new breed? In many ways, Indonesia’s presidential election has come down to that, a contest between two men who are products of wildly different paths to power, both of whom insist they are reformers who will battle corruption.

The choice the country makes when it votes on July 9 is largely about style and bearing, but it will have enormous implications for how Indonesia is perceived and how the country moves forward. (READ: What’s at stake in Indonesia election?)

Will it be the man who proclaims that his personal strength is needed to solve all ills or the municipal official who believes government is a matter of solving one problem at a time? Will it come down to command or consensus?

Retired Gen. Prabowo Subianto was born a child of privilege who knew what the words “noblesse oblige” meant at an early age. Guided by his patrician grandfather, an early leader of the republic, he was educated abroad but entered the military academy because that was the surest path to the presidency. 

By the end of his military career, he had become a lightning rod for criticism, accused of human rights abuses and plotting to take over the country. Dismissed from the service after his then father-in-law Suharto stepped down, he went briefly into exile, came home and has reinvented himself as the unlikely savior of a nation that once scorned him.

Say what you will about Prabowo, he is a remarkable political figure. Strong, determined and focused, in person he is charming and urbane; on the stump, his fiery nationalist rhetoric has alarmed investors and worried people who fear he would turn the clock back to an authoritarian past. But his rising poll numbers attest to his appeal to voters who believe he is the guy to help Indonesia realize its vast potential. 

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo could not be further from Prabowo in style, appearance or background. Reed thin with a constant smile, he comes from humble beginnings and built a successful furniture business in East Java. He worked with non-governmental organizations related to his suppliers before he entered politics in 2005 to become a two term mayor of Solo, hailed as one of the country’s best civic officials. He beat the odds and became Jakarta governor in 2012 and has built an impressive record by reforming tax collections, clearing slums and breaking ground on a mass transit rail system that was stalled for 25 years. 

In person, Jokowi is self-effacing but firm. He looks people in the eye and makes it a point to walk among the people, a rare feat for an Indonesian politician. His supporters adore him and he is mobbed on the campaign trail by the poor and the middle class who say they feel he understands them.  On the stump, he offers solutions and discusses issues, he convinces. He is never bombastic.

The business community, foreign and domestic, has largely backed Jokowi, feeling he is the safer bet and that Prabowo’s heavy rhetoric is too much. Technocrats, among others, advise Jokowi; Prabowo’s advice is harder to spot and much of it comes from his well-respected businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo.  

Bitter campaign

Both men are nationalistic in their basic programmers and few real policy differences have emerged between them in a bitter campaign. 

But Jokowi, once leading by double digits in the polls, has seen his numbers decline and the race become a virtual dead heat as undecided voters seem to be moving to the Prabowo camp. The bombast and negative campaigning by the Prabowo side, coupled with a coalition that includes media magnates and the chairman of the country’s largest political party, Golkar, have proven to be a potent force. 

Jokowi has been called a “puppet” of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P); a tool of unnamed foreign interests; incompetent and inexperienced; a purpose-built tabloid newspaper falsely labeled  him a secret half-Chinese Christian. The Jokowi side, through social media, has raised its own charges against Prabowo, largely related to human rights, but few of the juicier rumors one hears about the general have leaked into the campaign. 

Jokowi told reporters recently that he refuses to go negative because that is not his style. He has maintained his consistent presence, smiling, outlining plans, being mobbed by adoring fans.

Prabowo’s audiences are different, louder and often clad in various uniforms. There is a martial air to his rallies and his organization. He has used the nationalist style of another era to appeal to Indonesians who may find the messy contours of democracy frustrating. 

Prabowo was quoted telling a public forum last week that direct democracy is out of step with Indonesian culture and should be reevaluated. He later said he was misquoted but his campaign is unmistakably about appealing to those who may long for someone to take charge. His own party, the Greater Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, is known to be clean and disciplined, with members expelled if they are tainted by charges of corruption.  

Prabowo has rarely been seen as personally corrupt and no scandals have ever tarnished Jokowi’s reputation either. This air of personal probity may be the only thing that unites these two vastly different candidates and that fact alone may explain why these are the last two men standing in a lengthy political process that has seen the public reject one old politician after another. 

But neither side is pure. Prabowo’s coalition includes numerous parties – and just this week the ruling Democratic Party signed up – who have been implicated in massive scandals.  Jokowi’s PDI-P has similarly seen many of its lawmakers jailed on corruption charges. 

But now it is time to decide. In the booth next week Indonesians will make one of the starkest choices in their history when they opt either for the allure of Prabowo’s command style or choose Jokowi, a product of the reform era and exemplar of small-town democracy. 

I spoke with a Jokowi strategist last week and asked if he was disheartened by the recent polls. “I try to be philosophical,” he said. “We have worked very hard for this, but the Indonesian people will have to decide what they want. This time there is a real choice.” (Catch updates on the campaigns and election on Rappler’s live blog. Also follow Rappler Indonesia on Twitter @RapplerID)–


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