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Indonesia election

Indonesian election pits reformer versus strongman in rematch

A clash of styles between 'grassroots' Jokowi and straight-talking Prabowo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and challenger Prabowo Subianto attend their last debate ahead of Wednesday's presidential election. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

JAKARTA -- A viral YouTube video of two comedians impersonating Indonesia's presidential candidates facing off in an "Epic Rap Battle" starkly portrays the different styles of incumbent Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his challenger, former military general Prabowo Subianto.

In the five-minute clip that has racked up more than 13 million views since its release on April 8, the Widodo impersonator plays on the president's more humble beginnings, rapping: "In the past, I had to be evicted three times." He goes on to take a dig at Subinato's family links with former dictator Suharto.

The comedian portraying the opposition candidate fires back: "My father was a minister and my grandfather built Bank Negara Indonesia, one of the country's state-owned banks. I served in the military. For 70 years, for the country."

Both candidates are nationalists who support the Pancasila, the foundational philosophical theory of the country with the world's largest Muslim population. It has five principles that include belief in only one god, democracy and a unified Indonesia. The pair also have similar economic and other policy platforms.

But it is in political style where they differ.

Widodo, 57, has kept to the grassroots approach that propelled him into office 2014, drawing comparisons with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Subianto, 67, meanwhile, takes an approach akin to current U.S. President Donald Trump, portraying himself as a strongman and peppering his speeches with fiery tirades against political correctness.

The April 17 election is a rematch of the 2014 vote, in which Widodo narrowly beat Subianto.

Widodo, a furniture exporter before he entered politics, has paid frequent visits to places such as markets where ordinary people work to take the pulse of the economy. His support base mainly consists of low earners with little education, who have benefited from programs such as the introduction of universal health care and educational support for children.

While Widodo usually speaks politely in a measured tone, on the campaign trail he has become more combative, vowing to "fight" after "being silent for four and a half years." Like Obama, he listens to advisers and places priority on building consensus -- this, however, has slowed decision making.

His administration's failure to make progress on issues such as creating suitable jobs for university graduates, has driven a growing number of middle class voters toward Subianto.

"Those who are well educated feel Joko Widodo's solutions to the problems are too simple," said Azyumardi Azra, professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks at his final rally before Wednesday's presidential election. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Subianto talks more bluntly. The former general has sounded alarms about Indonesia's future, making doomsday predictions such as the collapse of the nation in 2030.

In an April 6 rally in Ciamis in West Java, Subianto slammed endemic corruption within the Indonesia government, shouting "Don't sell wealth to foreign countries" and "Don't let the country be controlled by the elite."

He used to be married to one of Suharto's daughters, and is not playing down his military credentials or his elite status. But his approach of blaming the country's problems on the establishment is resonating with many disgruntled voters.

While Indonesia's economy has been growing at a healthy annual clip of around 5%, it is struggling to create decent jobs for young people. In rural places like Ciamis where this is an issue, comparisons can be drawn to America's Rust Belt, where workers flocked to Trump in 2016.

Channeling the U.S. president, Subianto even vows to "Make Indonesia Great Again."

But the former general has to contend with some past issues. In 1998, the military unit he commanded was involved with alleged abductions and disappearances of pro-democracy activists. After the collapse of the Suharto regime, he was tried by court-martial and discharged from military service.

But "with 40 percent of Indonesia's 193 million voters below the age of 35, many are simply unaware of or uninterested in his checkered past," said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia project at the Lowy Institute.

While Widodo holds solid double digit leads in recent opinion polls, Prabowo is narrowing the gap. Some surveys show the challenger leading the president among people aged 17-22.

Prabowo Subianto, left, opposition challenger for Indonesia's presidency, prays during a TV debate on Saturday with running mate Sandiaga Uno. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The candidates' vice presidential picks also stand in contrast.

Widodo's running mate is Ma'ruf Amin, the chairman of Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), the nation's top clerical body. The president chose him to dispel criticism he was anti-Muslim, and to curry favor with Islamic organizations.

The 76-year old is known for issuing a fatwa to bring about the downfall of former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Purnama in the 2017 gubernatorial election for the capital.

But Lowy's Bland says Ma'ruf is a contradictory figure. "His long career has been characterized by a combination of political flexibility, in order to secure high-ranking and lucrative positions, and doctrinaire promotion of conservative Islam," he said.

"He has regularly condemned 'deviant' practices and promoted a greater role for MUI in setting Islamic standards for society and the economy," Bland added. "The latter aspect makes many commentators fear that Ma'ruf and his allies will use the vice presidency, if he and Jokowi are elected, to promote the Islamization of the state."

Widodo, however, has defended his choice of Amin, saying: "I am a nationalist. He is a devout religious figure. We complement each other well."

In this February 1998 photo, Subianto stands with his ex-wife, Titiek, the daughter of former dictator Suharto.   © Reuters

While Widodo's alliance with Amin and Muslim groups is alienating some progressive voters, Subianto's choice of Jakarta deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno, a self-made billionaire businessman, has played well with the young.

Uno, 49, co-founder of two investment companies, has used his wealth to boost Subianto's campaign. He regularly posts on social media images of himself jogging, swimming, and playing basketball, and his looks have also endeared him to some female voters.

He has also re-branded his secular status in an appeal to Muslims, seemingly undergoing a spiritual transformation to leave behind a hedonistic lifestyle -- a growing trend among Indonesian youth. He now regularly attends Friday prayers at mosques, and he recently visited the tomb of Bisri Syansuri, founder of Nadhlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organization.

"If you look at Sandi [Uno], and then you look at Ma'ruf Amin, it is a no-brainer that the [youth] especially would favor him," said Pangeran Siahaan, chief executive of Asumsi, a local media company producing millennial-targeted content.

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