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RPT-Indonesian voters will face choice between old guard and new

Reuters | Monday, May 26, 2014

Prabowo Subianto.

JAKARTA- The sudden emergence of an ex-general as a genuine contender has turned Indonesia's presidential election into a clash between the old guard who flourished under decades of autocratic rule and a new generation representing the fledgling democracy.

Prabowo Subianto, who rose through the military ranks under autocratic former leader Suharto, won the backing of the powerful Golkar party this month in a shock reversal for Joko"Jokowi" Widodo, who until then had been coasting to victory.

In the latest twist, the anti-corruption agency named the religious affairs minister, whose party also supports Prabowo's candidacy, as a suspect in a graft case in a potential embarrassment for the contender.

But the July 9 ballot is now a two-horse race in which the electorate faces a clear choice: take a risk with the relatively untested, untainted Jokowi, or settle for a tough, nationalistic enforcer who has experience from years as a top military man on his side.

In a presidential election where analysts say personality is more important to voters than a candidate's party or policies, how the men portray themselves and to what extent they try to play up their differences could well decide who prevails.

"Jokowi's the first genuinely post-Suharto figure," said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst. "He's a different generation of politician and there's a market for politicians like him who are lower-key, but who get things done. That's what Jokowi is pursuing."

"Prabowo is trying to play up his decisiveness and toughness, which harkens back to the days of Suharto and (first President) Sukarno," Rowland added.

STRONG LEADER

Jokowi, 52, has been idolised by the domestic media and has dominated opinion polls, which he still leads by around 15 percentage points, even though his advantage has narrowed.

To catch him, Prabowo, whose rise coincides with a landslide election win by another Asian nationalist leader, India's Narendra Modi, is tapping into a yearning among many voters for a strong ruler after years of vacillating leadership.

Economic growth is slowing and the legions of poor have grown in number under the hesitant rule of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. His initial popularity has slumped in his second, and final, five-year term.

For Prabowo, 62, "strong leadership" has been the mantra of a campaign during which he has made a concerted effort to invoke memories of Indonesia's fiercely nationalist first president Sukarno, who ruled from 1945-67.

That mantra is also akin to the style of long-serving autocrat Suharto, Prabowo's former father-in-law whose "New Order" administration oversaw significant economic growth but also increasing authoritarianism, particularly towards the end of his rule in 1998.

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