Indonesian Presidential Campaign Heats up With First Debate

Indonesia's President Joko
Indonesia's President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo addresses the media in 2017 during a visit to the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines. Photo: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press

JAKARTA — Echoing the campaign tactics of Donald Trump, former Indonesian Gen. Prabowo Subianto says his country, the world’s third-largest democracy, is in dire shape and he is the leader who will restore it to greatness.

Subianto, running for president a second time in the April 17 elections, faces a major campaign test Thursday when he and his running mate, millionaire businessman Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, debate President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his vice presidential pick, conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, in the first of five debates.

The retired general’s message might appear to be lifted from Trump’s playbook of angry populism but Subianto has been at it far longer. He lost narrowly to Widodo in the 2014 election, a result he angrily refused to accept, and was a losing vice presidential candidate in 2004.

A rousing strongman-style speaker, Subianto rails against poverty in Indonesia and says it’s lagging its neighbors economically, militarily and technologically. With more than 260 million people and rich in natural resources, it should be a world power but instead, he says, is at risk of collapse.

“It’s easy to say ‘Indonesia will last a thousand years.’ But my fellow countrymen, if a state is unable to pay for hospitals, cannot guarantee food for its people, has a weak military system, can it last a thousand years?” Subianto said in his first major campaign speech this week.

Senior figures in his campaign have even invoked ancient kingdoms based in Java and Sumatra, which held sway over parts of Southeast Asia, as an era of glory that modern Indonesia can reclaim.

But so far opinion polls indicate Subianto isn’t expanding his support beyond an already converted minority – conservative Muslims who consider Widodo insufficiently Islamic and voters aged 50-plus who are nostalgic for the certainty of dictator Suharto’s rule that ended two decades ago.

Subianto, who was married to Suharto’s daughter, was a feared general during the dictatorship and his involvement in its human rights abuses remains anathema to politically progressive Indonesians who, if dissatisfied with Widodo, are firmly behind him as the lesser of two evils.

Polls show Widodo currently commanding between 52-54 percent support and Subianto 30-35 percent. But about 10 percent of voters are undecided and another 15 percent are considered swing voters, meaning the race has the potential to tighten.

Subianto’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, has said the polls, like those that misjudged the U.S. presidential election and U.K. referendum on European Union membership, are wrong. Subianto has barely appeared on the campaign trial since campaigning officially began in September, leaving most appearances to his youthful running mate.

Alexander Arifanto, an Indonesian politics expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said populist soundbites and slogans can narrow the race considerably but overcoming Widodo’s “fortress” of support in the provinces of Central Java and East Java is still a stretch for Subianto.

“The Prabowo team can only attack, coming up with real policy is something that they are not doing,” he said. “They don’t have any concrete plan to come up with an alternative economic agenda to compete with Jokowi.”

Widodo, the first Indonesian president from outside the country’s Jakarta elite, has made upgrading Indonesia’s creaking infrastructure the signature policy of his five year-term. A significant part of the effort has focused on Java, which with more than 140 million people is the world’s most crowded major island.

About 3,430 kilometers (2,130 miles) of roads and 941 kilometers (585 miles) of highways and toll roads have been built nationwide, according to the Ministry of Public Works, along with numerous new airports and seaports. A subway in the congested capital is expected to open in March.

Widodo’s lower middle-class roots in the central Javanese city of Solo and humble manner have made him widely liked. He, or the team around him, are also adept at connecting with Indonesia’s post-Suharto generation through savvy use of social media.

A conservative Islamic movement toppled the minority Christian governor of Jakarta, a Widodo ally, in 2016 and he was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. Widodo, however, is not the same lightning rod for controversy.

“Jokowi was targeted as anti-Islam or less responsive to the problems of Muslims,” said Gun Gun Heryanto, a political analyst at Islamic State University in Jakarta. “But in fact Jokowi has provided a quick response to many sensitive problems of Muslims domestically and globally, and he chose a respected Muslim cleric as his running mate.”

The debate topics Thursday include human rights, which won’t flatter Subianto if Widodo or Amin seize upon it to attack him.

He was a field commander in East Timor during Indonesia’s brutal occupation of the country and was dismissed from the military in 1998 for ordering special forces troops under his command to kidnap more than two dozen student activists. He was never court-martialed.

The students were tortured and two decades later, 13 of them remain missing.

Story: Stephen Wright