July 17, 2014 12:00 am JST

The men who would be president

SADACHIKA WATANABE, Nikkei staff writer

Joko Widodo: Popular populist

Joko Widodo, 53, better known as Jokowi, is a new type of political leader in Indonesia. Blessed with a common touch that is apparent in his open-collar shirts and sneakers, Widodo made his mark as a furniture salesman.

     He began his political career as mayor of Solo, a city on Java. In 2010, he was re-elected with 90% of the vote. Widodo is known for his frugality and clean image, something that sets him apart from the military and Indonesia's ruling elite.

    In 2012, Widodo ran successfully for governor of Jakarta, solidifying his "man-of-the-people" persona with surprise visits to working-class neighborhoods in a minivan. "A leader should go down to the masses and respond quickly to their requests," he said. Another selling point is his emphasis on getting things done. He removed street stalls to reduce congestion in the city, and shelved plans to open a large shopping mall in the capital.

     Should he win the presidency, one looming question concerns his economic policy. Some have expressed concern that a Widodo administration would be protectionist.

     But that worry matters less to his supporters than his reputation for honesty and competence.  As Jakarta governor, he replaced high officials suspected of bribery and other misdeeds and increased tax revenues by 30%, partly by computerizing tax payment procedures. Widodo has promised to choose his cabinet based on expertise rather than political considerations.

Prabowo Subianto: Enter the general

Prabowo Subianto, 62, is a paradoxical presidential candidate. The former general was closely linked to Suharto's authoritarian regime and acknowledged ordering the abduction of pro-democracy activists in 1998, just before that government collapsed. Nevertheless, he has mounted a strong challenge to Widodo.

    His connections to the elite and leadership experience give Subianto a presidential pedigree and unknown potential. In recent months he has closed the popularity gap with Widodo, capitalizing on his image as a strong leader. The biggest question is whether he can overcome his checkered past to win.

     Subianto is the son of Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a well-known economist who served as trade minister in the Suharto administration.  His father sided with an opposition group in the days of President Sukarno, Suharto's predecessor, forcing his family to flee the country.  Subianto grew up abroad, spending time in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Switzerland and the U.K.  He returned to Indonesia in 1970 after an absence of about a decade, entering a military academy in central Java. "My blood is for Merah Putih (the red-and-white flag of Indonesia)," he said. 

    Until Suharto's downfall, Subianto's military career was on the fast track. But he became notorious around the world as the mastermind of attacks on anti-Suharto demonstrators, and the kidnapping and torture of human rights activists. After Suharto was deposed, Subianto was stripped of his military command and went into exile in Jordan.

     The former general later transformed himself into an oil and paper tycoon. In 2004, he began seeking to resurrect his political career. He established the Gerindra Party in 2008 and ran unsuccessfully for vice president the following year as the running mate of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's eldest daughter.

     Subianto married Suharto's second daughter in 1983, but the two were later divorced. In June of this year, the two visited Suharto's grave together.