Indonesia set for presidential vote, ex-general tipped to win

Indonesians vote in a presidential election Wednesday with Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto the clear favourite after a campaign mixing nationalist rhetoric and pledges to continue the era of popular outgoing leader Joko Widodo.

The former general lost to Widodo in 2014 and 2019 but is on course to finally lead the world’s third-largest democracy after rehabilitating his image.

Widodo is constitutionally barred from running for a third term but his popularity hit all-time highs last year with polls showing he would have likely won another election.

Instead he is playing kingmaker for his defence chief and eldest son, who have joined forces on the same ticket.

Polls project Subianto to win a majority from nearly 205 million Indonesians who will dip their finger in halal ink at more than 800,000 polling stations across the volcano-dotted archipelago.

“What do I like? His persistence. For me, he cares about the people,” said Wilhelmina, a 51-year-old housewife in the capital Jakarta who goes by one name.

Battling the 72-year-old for a potential second-round run-off vote if he falls short are former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo.

NGOs and his former military bosses accuse Subianto of ordering the abduction of democracy activists at the end of dictator Suharto’s rule in the late 1990s, but his new “cuddly grandpa” persona has won over younger voters.

Wilhelmina joined student protests when Subianto allegedly targeted them but says she has forgiven him.

“That figure was in the past,” she said.

The defence chief’s strongman credentials as a former special forces leader, his new social media image and the addition of Widodo’s eldest son have boosted his appeal.

The decision to recruit Gibran Rakabuming Raka courted controversy after Widodo’s brother-in-law passed a ruling to lower the age for candidates.

Their campaign surged after the 36-year-old was allowed to run.

The younger Widodo’s popularity is tied to his father, who took Indonesia out of the Covid-19 pandemic relatively unscathed and back to five percent growth.

So analysts say the vote will be a referendum on Widodo and Subianto’s administration.

Subianto has pledged to carry on Widodo’s ambitious economic development and infrastructure-building.

Baswedan has instead promoted an opposition message targeting bad governance, while Pranowo has offered free internet for students and banked on his humble background.

But both have been unable to match the star power of the Subianto campaign.

“It’s as simple as that, to continue Jokowi’s policies or not,” said Yoes Kenawas, research fellow at Jakarta-based Atma Jaya Catholic University, using the president’s nickname.

‘Another populist’

Voting starts at 7:00 am Wednesday (2200 GMT Tuesday) in easternmost Papua and ends at 1:00 pm at the other end of the country in jungle-clad Sumatra.

So-called “quick counts” are expected to give a reliable indication of the winner. Official results are not expected until March.

Indonesia is a G20 economy that under Widodo cemented itself as an emerging Southeast Asian powerhouse.

Subianto says he wants to finish what Widodo started, turning Indonesia into an “advanced and prosperous” country.

More tricky for Widodo’s potential successor will be the delicate act balancing big power rivalries as the United States and China become increasingly locked in competition.

Subianto has committed himself to Indonesia’s non-aligned foreign policy.

“He sees China as a strategic partner but he is Western-educated. He will lean more to the West,” said Kenawas.

Yet he has railed against the European Union for restrictions on deforestation-related products, accusing the bloc of double standards.

While some Indonesians revel in such nationalist bombast, NGOs have expressed alarm over Subianto’s rights record.

“The world will have another right-wing populist leader with a problematic past” if he wins, said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Those ethical concerns have also been aimed at Widodo, whose backing of Subianto and Raka has raised fears he is trying to undermine democracy and install his own dynasty.

The military, looming in the background, crept back into civilian life under Widodo and Subianto may not be so pliant for his old boss if elected, analysts say.

But for many Indonesians it’s a case of not fixing what they believe isn’t broken.

“He will continue Jokowi’s programmes,” said unemployed 20-year-old Subianto supporter Abdul Rosyid.

“They are already good.”

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