Indonesian voters will face choice between old guard and new

Reuters

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Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (C) and his vice presidential running mate Hatta Rajasa wave to supporters after registering at the Election Commission for the upcoming July 9 election in Jakarta May 20, 2014. Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (C) and his vice presidential running mate Hatta Rajasa wave to supporters after registering at the Election Commission for the upcoming July 9 election in Jakarta May 20, 2014.
The sudden emergence of an ex-general as a genuine contender has turned Indonesia's presidential election into a clash between the old guard who flourished under decades of autocratic rule and a new generation representing the fledgling democracy.
Prabowo Subianto, who rose through the military ranks under autocratic former leader Suharto, won the backing of the powerful Golkar party this month in a shock reversal for Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who until then had been coasting to victory.
In the latest twist, the anti-corruption agency named the religious affairs minister, whose party also supports Prabowo's candidacy, as a suspect in a graft case in a potential embarrassment for the contender.
But the July 9 ballot is now a two-horse race in which the electorate faces a clear choice: take a risk with the relatively untested, untainted Jokowi, or settle for a tough, nationalistic enforcer who has experience from years as a top military man on his side.
In a presidential election where analysts say personality is more important to voters than a candidate's party or policies, how the men portray themselves and to what extent they try to play up their differences could well decide who prevails.
"Jokowi's the first genuinely post-Suharto figure," said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst. "He's a different generation of politician and there's a market for politicians like him who are lower-key, but who get things done. That's what Jokowi is pursuing."
"Prabowo is trying to play up his decisiveness and toughness, which harkens back to the days of Suharto and (first President) Sukarno," Rowland added.
Strong leader
Jokowi, 52, has been idolized by the domestic media and has dominated opinion polls, which he still leads by around 15 percentage points, even though his advantage has narrowed.
To catch him, Prabowo, whose rise coincides with a landslide election win by another Asian nationalist leader, India's Narendra Modi, is tapping into a yearning among many voters for a strong ruler after years of vacillating leadership.
Economic growth is slowing and the legions of poor have grown in number under the hesitant rule of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. His initial popularity has slumped in his second, and final, five-year term.
For Prabowo, 62, "strong leadership" has been the mantra of a campaign during which he has made a concerted effort to invoke memories of Indonesia's fiercely nationalist first president Sukarno, who ruled from 1945-67.
That mantra is also akin to the style of long-serving autocrat Suharto, Prabowo's former father-in-law whose "New Order" administration oversaw significant economic growth but also increasing authoritarianism, particularly towards the end of his rule in 1998.
Prabowo's stellar military career, during which he rose through the ranks with remarkable speed, unraveled quickly after Suharto's fall. In 1998, he was discharged by a military honorary council for misinterpreting orders in the abduction of anti-Suharto activists, and has been accused of instigating riots that killed hundreds of people just before Suharto's downfall.
He denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged, but his past represents a dilemma for Indonesia's electorate.
"I'd say most of the elite distrust him," said a prominent ethnic Chinese businessman, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Most of the business community is scared of him. But they don't dare go against him now that he's a candidate."
It also puts the United States in an awkward position, because it has previously denied Prabowo entry owing to his alleged links to the killings, and yet analysts believed he would be granted a visa if he won.
Market favourite
In investors' eyes, Jokowi is generally viewed as the preferable choice.
The Jakarta stock market jumped about 3 percent when he was nominated for the presidency in March. After Prabowo's sudden boost on Monday, the market fell, dropping nearly 3 percent on Tuesday.
Financial analysts see the ex-general as inclined towards economic nationalism, underscored in a new game app designed by his team called "Aksi Kita", which calls on players to help "develop national industry" and questions the dominance of foreign companies in the local car market.
"I signed a contract at the age of 18 when I entered the military," Prabowo told labor activists in April. "I was ready to die for my country with the understanding that, 'OK, I'll protect the nation and you technocrats please build a wealthy nation, a prosperous nation."
"When I retired, I had to ask: 'Why has corruption increased so much?'... we have to accept that our economic system is flawed. This has to be changed."
Unlike Jokowi, Prabowo has gone into considerable detail about the economic policies he would bring to Indonesia, and leaves little room for doubt that he would be in charge once inside the presidential palace.
That marks him out from the Jakarta governor, who owes his place in the race partly to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her party, the country's biggest, raising some questions over who will actually call the shots.

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