JAKARTA - The former general Prabowo Subianto desperately wants to be the next president of Indonesia. His failed bid five years ago hasn’t deterred him and he is campaigning with a ruthless gusto, backed-by firebrand Islamic clerics and nationalists.
Yet his strategy to oust the incumbent, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is struggling, particularly in an electorate where mundane issues like transport and getting the kids off to school will hold far greater significance when ballots are cast on April 17.
Writing in the South China Morning Post, Michael Vatikiotis, author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia," stirred the political pot by suggesting this election had divided Indonesians between the urban middle classes and conservative Muslims desiring a caliphate.
"Over time I have noticed that competitive politics increasingly divides the country socially, though not so obviously along class lines, as in Europe. In Indonesia the electoral divide is, alarmingly, along religious lines — between Muslims and non-Muslims,” he wrote.
Economic growth and development most important
Reports on the rising number of jihadists, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies — which says the number had quadrupled since 9/11 — are worrying and there are concerns in Indonesia about ISIS fighters returning from Syria and the Middle East.
Greg Barton, chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization Australia, said the number of jihadists in Indonesia had increased, particularly in the countryside where a harsher brand of Islam is often promoted.
But he added their numbers were measured in the thousands and that they were not a threat in the current election climate, which in a population of 264 million people is being dictated by economic growth and development.
“Where Indonesia is tracking 20 years on into this democratic transition is that all the parties acknowledge Islam as being important, with the exception of a few very minor parties that probably won’t meet the threshold to get into parliament,” he said regarding parties that see Islam as an absolute.
They include the Prosperous Justice Party or PKS and the Pembela Front Islam or FPI. Both are advocating a greater Islamic agenda — eschewed by Jokowi and even Prabowo who noted during a recent nationally televised debate that his mother was a Christian.
Barton said there was a big gap between identity politics — the backbone of the PKS and FPI — and advocating violence to support a caliphate, an enormous difference to the likes of Jemaah Islamiyah and the bombing campaigns it conducted across the archipelago in the 2000s.
“They are planning for the longer term to try and change legislation and try and get through some more agreeable Islamic legislation. That’s a real threat because it means that the principles of liberal democracy can be slowly eroded and die of a death of a thousand cuts.
“But the reality is on Wednesday is they won’t be major players,” he said.
Changing election scene
Barton’s sentiments were echoed by Lin Neumann, Managing Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, who said the hallmarks of this election were peaceful political rallies and a type of free speech that was not prevalent two decades ago.
“Indonesia as you know is a much different to place to what it was in 1998 following the downfall of Suharto,” he said.
“In those years we worried about the Balkanization of Indonesia, there were fears that the nation could fall apart, there were fears that the military could move against the civilian government and none of those things really came to pass.”
“Indonesia since 1998 has actually become, I would argue, the most stable democracy in Southeast Asia,” Neumann said.
“We don’t have the kind of pent-up turmoil and anger that Malaysia has, we haven’t had the coups and the uncertainty that Thailand faces, we haven’t had the kind of unrest that periodically grips The Philippines. It’s not a one party state. It is a democracy.”
President appears to be ahead in polls
Barton said all the polls suggest Jokowi should win comfortably.
“I think as long as the margin in terms of the presidential election between Jokowi and Prabowo is say eight-10 percent the result will be accepted. If it got down to sort of three percent or less, then I think we could see some contestation,” he said.
Another concern was protest votes, particularly among the youth who don’t see any major distinctions between the two main candidates.
This was a major factor in the turnout at recent elections in Thailand, and in Cambodia last year where a ban on the main opposition party guaranteed its return to a one-party state, triggering potential sanctions and a loss of trade preferences in the United States and Europe.
“If he doesn’t get re-elected it will be because of millennial voters and bear in mind that 60 million potential voters out of a potential of 190 or more million voters are under the age of 30, so it’s a fair chunk of the vote,” he said.