Today, nearly 190,000,000 Indonesians will go to the polls to elect their seventh president. He will also be the republic’s second head of state to be directly elected.
The elections matter a great deal. Indonesia is now the world’s 10th-largest economy and its largest Muslim-majority democracy. But Southeast Asia’s nascent giant is fragile, beset with chronic inequality, poor infrastructure and endemic corruption. So while decentralization has empowered the regions, a firm hand and visionary mind is still needed in Jakarta.
The candidates and their stories are well-known. First on the ballot is the controversial ex-general and Suharto in-law, Prabowo Subianto. Next is the wildly popular Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) a furniture manufacturer and exporter who rose from obscurity to become governor of Jakarta.
The latest surveys have shown that Jokowi’s lead is down to within the margin of error, perhaps reflective of what’s at stake for Indonesians.
It is true — as cynics say — that both Prabowo and Jokowi are political and economic nationalists, albeit with business-friendly postures. But the broad similarities in their platforms makes the choice between them all the more important. Because make no mistake, there is a real difference between Prabowo and Jokowi.
Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election is an existential contest. By their diametrically opposed styles of leadership, the two candidates provide very different visions for Indonesia’s future.
Prabowo has hammered the notion that Indonesia needs tegas (or firm) stewardship and that he is the best — indeed the only — player who can provide this. His message is one that prioritizes a stronger state, one that is active in the economy and assertive in foreign affairs. It is also an angry message — peppered with countless allegations of corruption and theft.
We cannot underestimate the appeal of this message to Indonesians weary of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s indecisiveness and the current political deadlock. A side-effect of the Reformasi and decentralization — which have otherwise been blessings — is that power has been fragmented. Successive administrations post-Suharto have wilted in the face of relentless media scrutiny and the opposition of vested interests to reform.
A leader like Prabowo may very well be Indonesia’s panacea. But his checkered past, as well as his impatience with the nitty-gritty of democracy, means that Prabowo may lack the moral stature to bring about the renewal he has repeatedly called for.
Jokowi’s message lacks Prabowo’s bluster but it’s more nuanced. His call is for a more empowered citizenry, for healthier and better educated Indonesians with good jobs. He has also called for a “Revolusi Mental” (“Mental Revolution”), a dramatic shift in mindset that will make Indonesians more process-orientated and have a better work ethic.
Basically, Prabowo’s approach is top-down, while Jokowi’s approach is bottom-up.
Prabowo warns of the dilemmas Indonesia’s direct democracy has brought. Jokowi, in contrast, has embraced these challenges. He has made it a point of engaging local media in the smallest of towns, stressing their importance as guardians of freedom. But he has also spoken of the responsibilities of citizenship. It’s a compelling narrative, but perhaps Jokowi’s admirers are guilty of projecting onto him their hopes and dreams. There are also concerns that his presidency will be under the long shadow of his party leader, the PDI-P’s Megawati Soekarnoputri.
But Indonesians are not only electing a president. In their choice between Prabowo and Jokowi, they are also signaling to the world and to themselves which side of their national character they prefer, or the kind of future they think they deserve.
Does the republic need a blast from the past or a full-on embrace of the future with its unknowns? Either way, Indonesia will never be the same again.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.