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Asian Opinions

Dave Mcrae
Saturday, Jun 28, 2014

Asian Opinions

Voters' choice: A leader to govern with or over them?

Dave Mcrae | Saturday, Jun 28, 2014

Indonesian presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto (L) from the Gerindra Party (Great Indonesia Movement) and Joko Widodo (R) from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) join hands on the stage after signing an election commission declaration calling for peaceful elections during a ceremony in Jakarta.

This year's Indonesian presidential election has become a close and polarising race, splitting the electorate almost down the middle. Mr Joko 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. Mr Joko 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 Mr Joko and Mr 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.

Mr Joko'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".

Mr Joko'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 Mr Joko, only for him to be forced to abort his visit as the crowd thronged around him the moment he arrived.

But a section of Mr Joko's committed support also derives from passionate rejection of the authoritarian governance that some feel Mr Prabowo stands for.

Whereas Mr Joko is a product of Indonesia's democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Mr 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 Mr Prabowo's chequered track record during the tenure of his then father-in-law, former president Suharto.

Such feelings have seen Mr Joko'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.

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