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Indonesia election

Go-Jek founder praises Jokowi, giving Indonesian president a lift

Business community rallies to incumbent before election but hedges its bets

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, third from right, took part in an award ceremony hosted by ride-hailer Go-Jek on April 11. Standing to his left is the company's CEO, Nadiem Makarim. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

JAKARTA -- With less than a week to go before Indonesians go to the polls to choose their president for the next five years, the incumbent Joko "Jokowi" Widodo received a timely boost to his campaign from the ride-hailing operator Go-Jek, which thanked him for its success.

Widodo has been losing support among millennials, who make up 40% of Indonesia's voters and helped propel him to the presidency in 2014. To win them back, Widodo is trying to capture the cool factor associated with startups in the country. Go-Jek's award ceremony for drivers, merchants and service partners on Thursday was an ideal occasion for the president to align himself with the country's first decacorn -- private companies valued at more than $10 billion.

"We are very thankful to President Joko Widodo and the 'working cabinet,' who fully support the use of technology as the accelerator of digital economy growth," said Nadiem Makarim, the ride-hailing service's founder and CEO.

Widodo congratulated the company on reaching decacorn status. "The future of the digital economy has given hope for our economic growth," he said to hundreds of Go-Jek drivers and merchants gathered at a convention center for the event. Go-Jek says it has close to 2 million drivers in Indonesia alone. Those drivers, and the thousands of merchants and service providers on Go-Jek's platform, are a large potential voting bloc.

That Widodo sees the startup community as an important part of his campaign was highlighted in February, when he publicly defended Achmad Zaky, founder and CEO of one of Indonesia's largest online marketplace apps, Bukalapak. Zaky drew the wrath of Widodo supporters by criticizing the government's low spending on research and development compared with other countries. Widodo appeared to brush that off, calling on the public to "stop uninstalling Bukalapak" from their smartphones.

Indonesia is home to four unicorns including the now decacorn Go-Jek, the most in Southeast Asia, and this is an easily recognizable achievement for the public. It helps him appeal to younger people, who make up a considerable portion of eligible voters.

Widodo is seen as friendly to business and is backed by several prominent business figures in his bid for a second term. Among those at a rally for the president organized by the business community in late March was Roesan Roeslani, chairman of Kadin, Indonesia's chamber of commerce, and Haryadin Sukamdani, chairman of the Indonesian Employers Association.

"It's quite hard for businessmen to declare their political stance, especially to support the president and vice president candidate openly," said Sukamdani, at the gathering. "We are finally here to declare support for [Widodo] because of our appreciation for the benefits we have obtained from [his] leadership."

But Kadin is hedging its bets; at least three deputy chairmen of the organization attended a gathering held the same day for Prabowo Subianto, the former general who is Widodo's main opponent in the election.

Among the attendees was Erwin Aksa, president commissioner of the South Sulawesi based conglomerate Bosowa Group. "The heads of Kadin are there [at Widodo's gathering], but the hearts and bodies are here," Aksa said. "Those present in the room here are all who have common sense."

But Indonesia's business and political leaders have close and complicated ties: Aksa Mahmud, Aska's father and founder of the conglomerate, is the brother-in-law of Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

While it is natural for businesses to avoid taking sides in an election, a senior financier at a foreign bank said the business community is annoyed at some of the measures taken by Widodo's government.

According to the financier, the biggest concern is taxes. "They know Jokowi is trying to build infrastructure for future growth, and for that the country needs money. At the same time they feel the tax office is being aggressive, and sometimes unreasonable, and not actually trying to work with them and to look at the more business-friendly approach," the financier said.

Subianto's campaign team has floated the idea of cutting the corporate tax rate by up to 8 percentage points to woo business leaders. But they appear skeptical the former general can deliver.

"Subianto can say anything he wants. It is just a promise," the financier said, questioning the efficacy of the policy in a country that suffers from a persistent budget deficit. "It is one of the sweeteners, but it is not a solution to Indonesia's problems. Our problems are way beyond that," he said.

Nikkei staff writer Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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