Only a very bad novelist would dare to write a scenario as simplistic as the current presidential election in Indonesia. A young, attractive, squeaky-clean man of the people running against a rich, old general trailing war crimes accusations behind him: can’t you come up with a plot a bit more original than that?
Joko Widodo, universally known in Indonesia as Jokowi, is actually a good deal older than he looks: he’s 53. And former General Prabowo Subianto has never been found guilty of the war crimes and murders he is alleged to have committed: none of the generals who served the former dictator Suharto have been brought to trial. But the two men could hardly be more different, and Indonesia’s 190 million voters could hardly face a more striking choice.
Suharto was overthrown by a nonviolent popular revolution in 1998 after 30 years in power, and Indonesia has been a democracy ever since. But it has been a very corrupt democracy in which the old economic and military elites continued to dominate politics, and people from outside that charmed circle rarely rose to prominence. Then along came Jokowi.
Joko Widodo, the son of a wood-seller, made his pile as an exporter of wooden furniture before being elected mayor of his native city of Surakarta in central Java in 2005. His simple lifestyle, his pragmatic, hands-on approach to the city’s many problems, and his sheer incorruptibility won him a national reputation, and he easily won election as governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s huge, dysfunctional capital city, in 2012.
With no other potentially electable reform candidate in view, Jokowi’s transition to national politics was practically inevitable, and by early this year he was the opposition candidate for the presidency. Not only that, but he was way out in front: three months ago he was predicted to win almost two-thirds of the votes. Indonesians have not been well served by their governments since the revolution, and the voters are fed up.
The incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, could not run for a third term, and credible alternative candidates were not thick on the ground. In the end the conservative parties had to turn to Prabowo Subianto despite his troublesome history. It seemed like a lost cause — but three months is a long time in politics.
Prabowo is a son of privilege. His father came from a wealthy family and served as a cabinet minister under both Indonesia’s founding dictator, Sukarno, and the brutal general who followed him, Suharto. Prabowo married Suharto’s daughter in 1983, and served as a special forces commander trying to eliminate resistance fighters in Indonesian-occupied East Timor and separatists in West Irian.
In both conflicts he was accused of human rights abuses, but few Indonesians remember that now. The accusations that just won’t go away concern his role in kidnapping, torturing and murdering pro-democracy protesters during the non-violent campaign to oust Suharto in 1998. “It was my superiors who told me what to do,” Prabowo insisted in one of the presidential debates, but that is not much of a defense in law.
Despite his wealthy background, Prabowo is very good at pretending to be the champion of the poor. His political style is somewhere between Juan Peron and Benito Mussolini, belligerently anti-foreign and over-the-top dramatic: he has been known to arrive at rallies riding on a thoroughbred horse.
“Our sources of wealth are controlled by foreign hands, foreign companies, so the wealth flows out from the country … Indonesia’s wealth should be controlled by our country,” Prabowo said in the second presidential debate on June 15. He didn’t mention exactly who in the country should control the wealth (for obvious reasons), but the rhetoric works: on the eve of the election on Wednesday, he is neck-and-neck with Jokowi.
It would be a great pity if such a man bluffed and blustered his way into the Indonesian presidency, but such things happen from time to time. As Abraham Lincoln would have said if he had been willing to disappoint the idealists: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you only have to fool 51 percent of the people for three months before the election and you’re home and dry for five years.”
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.