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He’s on a horse: Prabowo v Jokowi a battle for Indonesian democracy

Indonesians will head to the polls to decide their next president today. The scene is set, with military strongman Prabowo sitting tall in expensive boots while the people’s man, Jokowi, makes a last-minute prayer. Jim Della-Giacoma reports.

Two men are seeking to fill the shoes of president as Indonesians head to the polls today — and two iconic images from rallies in the same location tell the story of this presidential campaign.

Prabowo Subianto arrived at the national sports stadium by helicopter to make his pitch to the people, avoiding the infamous Jakarta traffic. Joko Widodo, the capital’s governor, came by car.

Prabowo made a triumphant entrance straight backed on a horse wearing high-cut riding boots, which cost the annual income of Indonesia’s poorest citizens. Jokowi, as his rival is universally known, leapt on stage wearing sneakers that cost less than AUD$15.

Prabowo, the Javanese blue blood, descendant of a prince, loses his voice screaming anti-foreigner rhetoric to excited crowds. He projects an image that he is born to rule.

Born in a kampung by a riverside in Central Java, Jokowi prefers to go walkabout in crowds, touching one voter at a time. Softly spoken, he whispers to the rural heartlands: “I am one of you.”

One message resonates with those who hanker for the stability and security of Suharto’s dictatorship; the other carries with it the promise and opportunity offered by democracy. Opinion polls show that each has his own and almost equal constituency in this complicated country of 250 million.

Prabowo’s campaign is slick, on message, and bankrolled by his billionaire brother. Styled by American consultants, he says all the right things. He is against corruption, wants to construct more roads, keep the lights on, and build a greater Indonesia. In his vision, the country’s problems can be solved by his firm leadership.

Going on the trail with Jokowi shows his electoral caravan to be a shambles. He’s always late, often doesn’t show up for rallies, and repeatedly misses the opportunity to make the nightly news with a tightly scripted message. Clean and with a solid track record in governing well, his solutions are co-operative and bureaucratic. Together, he says, we will rise to these challenges.

Belatedly, Jokowi’s team have pointed out that Prabowo’s corruption-fighting credentials are weak. He was one of the fastest-promoted generals while his father-in-law, Suharto, was president. His coalition contains the highest-profile corruption suspects and parties caught with their hands in the till. Fed up with omnipresent corruption, Jokowi’s popularity with voters is based on his reputation for being honest and humble.

Prabowo, the former special forces chief, is running from his past. Dismissed from the military in 1998 after being accused of the unauthorised kidnapping of activists, he was discharged on the recommendation of a council of peers. This was process and punishment by a system notorious for its weak accountability. But he can claim he was never tried or convicted in a court for these crimes. While the call for justice by families of victims makes the newspapers, most voters get their news from television. Each network is captured by an oligarch, each businessman has his own party, and most of them back Prabowo. His spin gets the airtime as Jokowi struggles to get his message out.

Prabowo, who has never held elected office, is making his third run at the presidency. If successful, some fear it would be his last; his party’s policy is to revert to the 1945 independence constitution, which allows for no direct elections or term limits. Indonesia’s democracy is looking fragile.

Ideas have often been lost in a dirty campaign. A Javanese Muslim, Jokowi has been subject to a black campaign, being called a Chinese Christian. Some mud has stuck in mostly Islamic electorates. Prabowo is backed by four of the more conservative Islamic parties. The Jakarta Post, the Christian-owned English-language daily, unusually endorsed Jokowi, in part for rejecting faith-based politics. Prabowo, it wrote, has embraced “religious thugs who forward an intolerant agenda”.

In the three days quiet time ahead of the election, Jokowi, already a haji, left for a quick pilgrimage to Mecca before returning to vote today. Some think it a masterstroke. Is Prabowo destined to lead? Will Jokowi’s prayers be answered? Who will be walking in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s moccasins come October? In an electorate of around 190 million, the wisdom and choice is now with the crowd.

*Jim Della-Giacoma is a visiting fellow in the Department of Social and Political Change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

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