News / Asia

Indonesia’s Presidential Race Heats Up

FILE - Indonesian presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (L) looks on as he sits with his wife Iriana during a campaign rally in Majalengka, West Java province.
FILE - Indonesian presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (L) looks on as he sits with his wife Iriana during a campaign rally in Majalengka, West Java province.
Kate Lamb

Indonesia’s presidential race heads into its final week as Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo faces off against Prabowo Subianto, a former Army Special Forces Commander. The tight election campaign has not been free of controversy.

As the July 9 election date approaches, 187 million voters in the world’s third-largest democracy prepare to head to the polls.

Over recent months, the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is known here, has watched his comfortable lead of more than 25 percent drop to single digits.

Most polls still place Jokowi in front, but only by a slim margin. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, has put forward an extremely strong campaign and in some polls is trailing by just three percent.

Douglas Ramage, a political analyst with the Bower Group Asia, said Prabowo has long prepared for this moment.

“Bear in mind this is a presidential candidate who may be one of the most experienced presidential candidates in Asia. He has run for president three times in Indonesia and he has gotten good at it,” said Ramage.

Prabowo’s well-run campaign and commanding, nationalistic speeches about reclaiming Indonesia’s resource wealth are attracting a growing number of voters. But his rise has not been without controversy.

The former general is accused of human rights abuses in East Timor and of ordering the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in 1998, while serving as commander of the Army’s special forces.

Critics fear that Prabowo, who has never been tried in a civilian court of law over the claims, could roll back democratic freedoms Indonesians have enjoyed since the fall of former president Suharto.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert O. Blake appeared to weigh in on the conversation too, telling The Wall Street Journal that while the United States did not take a position on the election, it has urged Indonesia to investigate the alleged rights abuses.

The comments have sparked anger among some government officials here who say it is unacceptable for the United States to meddle in domestic affairs. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Monday described the comments as “a lapse of judgment that is difficult to accept.”

Others, like Aleksius Jemadu, a political science professor from Pelita Harapan University, said the United States is implicitly pushing for a leader willing to accommodate U.S. foreign policy and its strategic interests.

“I think it is very clear that the Prabowo administration is going to be very nationalistic and might not be easy for the United States to invite Indonesia into its strategic calculation of the United States vis-a-vis China's rising at the moment,” said Jemadu.

As Prabowo edges closer, Jokowi’s popularity appears to have been hurt by a series of smear campaigns that allege he is Christian or ethnic Chinese.

In a country that is predominately Muslim, Jokowi has been forced to devote time to dispel the rumors - time analysts say has caused him to cede ground.

But Jokowi’s reputation for clean governance and populist leadership style still appeal to some voters.

This year’s election is an important milestone in Indonesia’s democratic progress as it will mark the first time power will be handed over from one elected leader to another.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is finishing his second five-year term and is ineligible to seek a third term in office.

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