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Opinion

Indonesia's election -- the advantages of incumbency

President Jokowi ahead in opinion polls, as Prabowo struggles to make attacks stick

The poor and lower middle classes generally back Joko Widodo.   © Sipa/AP

From the start, the April 17 Indonesian presidential election was going to be an unequal race. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who is seeking a second term in office, is viewed as a strong incumbent against a lone challenger, Prabowo Subianto, a retired army general who is untested in government.

Most opinion polls predict a victory for Widodo, although pundits are hedging their bets with caveats about a possible upset. In presidential systems, incumbents are often hard to beat at the polls. The question voters typically ask is, "Why change if it ain't broke?" Widodo's presidency is far from broken, and Prabowo has struggled to prove otherwise.

This race is a repeat of the presidential election in 2014 with the same two candidates, who were then both running for the first time. Prabowo lost that race by a slim margin after he waged a tough campaign and cut the strong lead Widodo had earlier established with his man-of-the-people appeal. As the incumbent, Widodo is in an even stronger position this time.

Ideologically, little separates the two candidates. Both are nationalists with a tinge of xenophobia. Both are secular and resist any deep intrusion by political Islam. Both are scrambling for votes of the religious conservatives, but this should not be confused, as sometimes happens with foreign observers, with a move toward Islamism.

Neither candidate has campaigned for an Islamist agenda such as sharia law. Moreover, Widodo's running mate Ma'ruf Amin is Indonesia's top Muslim ulema (teacher) so ulemas on Prabowo's side are reluctant to attack him.

Admittedly, Widodo has faced criticism during the election campaign from religious conservatives, accusing him of tolerating gays and communists, even though communism is long dead and gone in Indonesia.

But Prabowo has been careful not to press too hard on religion as he too may be vulnerable to Islamic conservative criticism. He is a Muslim from a mixed religious family -- with a Muslim father and a Christian mother; all his siblings are Christians.

Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) is a center-left political party, while Prabowo's Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, is center-right. Their differences are a matter of degree. While both profess to be for the people and friendly to business, PDIP is perceived as the party of the "little people" while Gerindra is closer to the business world.

Prabowo's economic agenda does not differ radically from Widodo's. Prabowo promises the same things as Widodo -- more economic growth, more jobs and more prosperity and less inequality -- but pledges to deliver them better.

He has poked at weaknesses in the current administration, such as the failure to deliver the 7% growth rate promised in the 2014 election campaign.

Widodo' supporters admit that there have been many shortcomings, but say the president has performed well enough to be re-elected. He has kept the economy stable; growth has averaged more than 5% annually, while inflation has been around 3-4%. The poverty rate has fallen to a historic low of less than 10%, while unemployment is at 5.6%.

The poor and lower middle classes back Widodo for introducing a universal national health care service, free schooling for 12 years, and cash subsidies. He has embarked on an ambitious program to redistribute land to the poor to empower people and reduce the wealth gap with the elite. His massive infrastructure program, including 1,200 kilometers of toll roads, has started to deliver benefits.

Widodo has been tough over resource nationalism. His government last year secured a controlling stake in Freeport Indonesia, which controls the world's largest gold reserves in Papua, from American mining giant Freeport McMoRan. He ensured Indonesia's takeover of Rokan, the country's most productive oil field, from U.S. oil group Chevron, and the large Mahakam gas field from France's Total.

Widodo has fallen short on civil rights. There have been a rising number of persecutions against religious minorities and the gay community. His supporters on the left of the political spectrum are dismayed at his failure to stop the attacks, but they are not going to vote for the former general Prabowo on this account. Indonesia, like many parts of the world, has become more conservative. Voters will probably not hold this against the president.

Prabowo Subianto cannot rely on his military record to appeal to voters.   © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Prabowo cannot rely on his military record to appeal to voters. His active service ended in controversy in 1998, amid reports of his alleged role in kidnapping opposition activists and students, after popular protests led to the overthrow of President Soeharto, his then father-in-law, Prabowo, who has denied wrongdoing, was discharged from military duty but not prosecuted.

Many voters appear comfortable with the president since they have seen him performed in office daily over five years. In contrast, Prabowo rarely made a public appearance as founding chair of his Gerindra party before he started campaigning for the presidency. During the televised presidential debates, Prabowo was viewed as temperamental, while Widodo projected a calm demeanor.

Widodo has faced attacks during the campaign over the country's growing ties with China, with critics claiming he has been too supportive of Chinese investment in Indonesia, amid concern about China's rise in the region.

However, his supporters say that, unlike some other Asian countries, Indonesia does not have massive debts with China.

Prabowo, for his part, is hardly in a good position to accuse Widodo of cosying up to president Xi Jinping. He was seen toasting the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta during China's national day reception in October.

This is Indonesia's fifth presidential election since Soeharto's downfall in 1998. It is not a perfect democracy, but it is a functioning one. Limiting the selection of candidates to two is a real constraint on democratic choice. Widodo used his influence to ensure that the 2017 election law requires a presidential candidate to be nominated by a party or a coalition of parties that won at least 25 percent of the votes in the 2014 polls. Since no party had 25 percent of the votes, they all formed coalitions, one behind Widodo, and another behind Prabowo.

Some Indonesians disillusioned with the system may opt for the third choice of not voting at all. But, despite the likely absences, the election will demonstrate that democracy still works in Indonesia. That is no mean achievement in a region where democracy is on the defensive.

Endy M. Bayuni is a senior journalist with The Jakarta Post.

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