Indonesia Nervously Awaits Presidential Polls

Indonesia goes into its third presidential election tomorrow since it became a fully-fledged democracy in 1998 with something akin to apprehension over the results. Some 186 million people, 70 million of them first-time voters, are expected to cast their ballots.

Both candidates are governed by the same set of economic and social challenges. Growth is softening and the current account is widening. At a time when the Asian Development Bank is calling for structural reforms, the country is rapidly building barriers to foreign investment.

The apprehension is caused by the presence on the ballot of Prabowo Subianto, the volatile former Special Forces commander who, in a recent interview with the Straits Times, said that “losing is not an option.” Nobody is quite sure what that means. But Prabowo is responsible for at least some of the concerns, making no secret of the fact that he thinks Indonesia’s social ethos is more collaborative than democratic, and that if elected, he would make largely unspecified changes in the electoral process. In a 2001 interview with American journalist Allan Nairn, winner of the prestigious George Polk award, he reportedly said Indonesians weren’t ready for democracy.

He repeated those thoughts two weeks ago in a voter symposium, saying that “I believe much of our current political and economic systems go against our nation’s fundamental philosophy, laws and traditions, and against the 1945 Constitution. Many of these ideas that we have applied are disadvantageous to us, they do not suit our culture.”

There appear to be genuine fears that if Prabowo doesn’t win, he might rally followers in the streets. Nairn has reported there is documentary evidence of meetings at the headquarters of the special forces unit that Prabowo once commanded that military intelligence units and the state intelligence agency “are involved in a covert operation to influence the presidential election.”

Others say those fears are overblown, that Prabowo has matured from the years when he was accused of a long list of transgressions including kidnapping activists, fomenting riots in the Chinatown section of Jakarta during the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis and coming close to engineering a coup against then-President BJ Habibie. He was fired from his post as Special Forces commander for insubordination. However, there are widespread reports of a mercurial temper that had him once hit another politician in the head with a cellphone and that he beat up a hotel waiter, according to an analysis – largely positive – of his behavior by John McBeth in the Straits Times.

He has exhibited considerable impatience during the string of televised debates prior to the election, lending substance to concerns about his temper. But the most recent poll, by the Indonesia Survey Circle shows that Prabowo’s opposition, Joko Widodo and his vice presidential candidate, Jusuf Kalla, have rebounded after being pounded relentlessly by a sophisticated and – critics say – unprincipled campaign that has labeled Joko a Chinese, a pawn of both foreign powers and his party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, and other offenses.

Indonesia Survey Circle is considered the most reliable of the country’s myriad polling organizations, which often play for those who pay them the best. The Survey Circle poll was conducted with 2,400 respondents between July 2 and 5. It claims a 2 percent margin of error. According to the pollsters, electability for Joko and Kalla now stands at 47.8 percent and trending upwards against that for Prabowo and his, Hatta Rajasa, at 44.2 percent, largely on the strength of the last televised debate between the rivals on Saturday.

“For the first time, the margin is widening with the rising [electability] of Joko and Kalla,” researcher Fitri Hadi told the state-run Antara news agency during a press conference on Monday.

The collapse of what had been thought a walk in the sun for Jokowi, as he is known, has been remarkable. He had held a 39.2 percent margin over Prabowo as late as last September when an onslaught of sophisticated mudslinging cut the difference to a statistical dead heat.

Even if the Survey Circle poll is relatively accurate, it is still too close to call. There are concerns that if Prabowo challenges the result, the election commission and the constitutional court could declare a failure of election in certain areas, leading to a period of instability and a possible revote in some provinces in September. The country could be in for a prolonged bout of political jousting that isn’t going to do anybody any good.

The Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle, which picked Joko Widodo as its standard-bearer, has been hamstrung by political infighting and spent almost nothing prior to April legislative elections. After seemingly being stunned by the level of attack by the Prabowo camp, Jokowi has driven up spending with a massive ad campaign of his own.

Prabowo’s appeal isn’t just because his campaign has saddled Jokowi with a long string of insults and insinuations, including that he was a closet Communist. From the start as long as two years ago, the candidate, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, has put on an energetic campaign of economic nationalism, saying he would wrest resource development from foreign powers, drive up agricultural productivity, provide the poor with social security services and stem corruption.

Jokowi has countered during debates that while Prabowo, whose net worth is about US$150 million, has promised a wide range of programs, Jokowi, as governor of Jakarta, has put many programs of his own into place, making a substantial improvement to living conditions.

In addition to relatively strong showings in the debate, Jokowi has finally begun to line out specific programs for his presidency including promotion of health plans and other programs in a “‘First 100 Days” series of plans immediately after the election.

The number of undecided voters remains very big, according to the Survey Circle report. Younger voters appear to be leaning toward Prabowo for his continuing call for a muscular domestic and foreign policy and economic nationalism.

But the business and investing community is solidly in Jokowi’s camp. As an example of the apprehensions about Prabowo, Jokowi’s strong performance in the last debate drove the value of the rupiah, the country’s currency, up by 1.35 percent in a single night.