Narrow Race, Rising Tensions in Indonesia

With Indonesia’s presidential race getting closer by the day, according to most polls, concerns are emerging in Jakarta about what might happen in the event of a very narrow victory for one candidate or the other.

Challenges to the result in specific jurisdictions can be filed with the Constitutional Court immediately after the July 9 polls. Such challenges could result in a failure of elections in certain areas or an adjustment in the vote tallies compiled by the National Election Commission (KPU).

A revote in some areas is also possible ahead of the scheduled October inauguration of a new leader. That could usher in a tense few months after an election that is already creating anxieties as the race narrows.

One sign of unease is the fact that some opinion survey companies are holding back recent results that show Jakarta Gov. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo trending lower in the face of the aggressive campaign being waged by retired General Prabowo Subianto.

A senior official in one well-respected polling organization confirmed that his group’s most recent poll had Joko in the lead by just 4 percent. Two months ago, the same group had Joko leading Prabowo by more than 20 points. Releasing the poll, the man said on condition of anonymity, has been stopped for “political reasons.”

The Jakarta Globe reported this week that two well-known and credible local pollsters, Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), have withheld survey data that might hurt Joko. Rizal Sukma, the executive director of CSIS, serves as Joko’s foreign policy advisor.

The Jakarta Post on Wednesday published results from seven polls, most showing Joko ahead but by as little as 3 percent.

The stunning slide in Joko’s numbers has puzzled numerous observers. There have been no credible charges of corruption against the Jakarta governor and his record as a municipal official first in the city of Solo beginning in 2005 and in Jakarta since 2012 has generally been both popular and effective.

It appears that a torrent of anonymous negative campaigning, however, has taken a toll, the most egregious being a tabloid newspaper distributed in rural areas that claims Joko is half-Chinese and a secret Christian. He has angrily denied the stories as vicious and false and sued the tabloid.

In contrast, Prabowo’s controversial human rights record from his years as a general has not seemed to be a major influence in the race.

With very few policy differences between the two campaigns, the more potent factor in Prabowo’s favor seems to be a rising perception that he looks more like a “leader” than Joko.

Sri Dewi, a professional with an executive services company in Jakarta, captured what a lot of middle class Jakartans have been saying. “I like Jokowi, he’s a good man,” said Sri. “But Prabowo is strong and we need a strong leader.”

Prabowo, who is from a wealthy and aristocratic family, has run a consistent and bombastic campaign, railing against foreigners taking advantage of the country and proclaiming his intention to eliminate the influence of “oligarchs” over the economy.

In a series of debates that have generally been seen as plusses for Jokowi, he has concentrated on specific proposals and policies, steering away from heavy rhetoric.

On the media front, Prabowo also has a built-in advantage as most news organizations have shed any pretense of impartial reporting. The nation’s largest 24-hour TV news channel, TVOne, is owned by Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, who is part of the Prabowo coalition. MNC Group, the country’s largest media company with numerous broadcast, online and print properties, has been led into the Prabowo camp by its owner Hary Tanoesoedibjo.

Joko can count on the support of a smaller TV news channel, Metro TV, which is owned by politician and Jokowi supporter Surya Paloh. A number of newspapers and magazines with limited circulation, especially outside Jakarta, also seem to be openly backing Joko.

Many observers still think Joko will pull off an election-day victory, largely because his support in rural areas runs deeper than Prabowo’s and he has few negatives. “I think a lot of people are hanging back still, staying quiet now, because the Prabowo campaign is kind of scary,” said a foreign elections expert with long experience in Indonesia. “We are hearing that people may be scared to speak out.”

Numerous intangibles remain. It is widely believed that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is tacitly supporting Prabowo, largely due to the influence of running mate Hatta Rajasa, whose daughter is married to the president’s youngest son. Officially, the president has stayed neutral.

In the event of a very close finish, Yudhoyono’s informal backing could prove helpful for one candidate or another, especially if he endorses Prabowo or in the event of challenges headed to the Constitutional Court.

For that reason, one senior Joko advisor said he was trying to convince the chairman of Joko’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, to put aside long-standing differences and seek out Yudhoyono for a personal chat.

“She stands to lose a lot if Prabowo wins, but so will Susilo,” said the advisor, citing the fact that when both men were generals, Yudhoyono signed the order in 1998 dismissing Prabowo from the army. “The president would be safer with Megawati and Jokowi, but she has to talk to him.”

So far, she has refused, holding a grudge over Yudhoyono for leaving her cabinet in 2004 to run for president against her. Prabowo has already said Megawati betrayed him by backing Joko and reneging on a 2009 pledge to support Prabowo for president in 2014.

If such feelings seem petty in a nation of 250 million people, they are. But Indonesia’s political elite is tiny and with the possibility of a razor-thin margin between the candidates, the difference between a clear victory and a period of relative instability due to angry charges and countercharges could rest on the shoulders of a very few people with the ability to influence political outcomes.

Reposted from Edge Review, a weekly online magazine on Southeast Asia.