The world’s biggest Muslim country picks its leader, here’s our explainer
Next Wednesday, many of Indonesia’s 192 million registered voters will be heading to the polls.
Spread across 992 inhabited islands, they will be tasked with picking roughly 20,000 national and local representatives, out of a pool of 245,000 candidates, in what has been described as the most complicated single day of elections in history.
One question will particularly excite voters – who will be their next president?
Indonesian politics can be a bit confusing as they don’t follow the standard left-right orientation Westerners are used to. We’ve done our best to simplify things for you.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (‘the logger’s son’)
The incumbent President was first elected with 54% of the vote in 2014.
Popularly known as “Jokowi”, Widodo was the first Indonesian president to not come from an elite political or military background, having been born into a Javan slum.
After a career as a furniture entrepreneur, Jokowi was elected mayor of Solo in 2005. He was re-elected in 2010 after gaining a reputation for transparency and efficient public administration. In 2012, he became the governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
His political platform in 2014 was one of “mind-set revolution” – an attempt to create a national character averse to corruption, nepotism and intolerance; vices he says took hold under the military regime that was unseated in 1998.
To do this, he has focused on education and led an anti-corruption campaign.
He has also invested heavily in infrastructure. The government pledged about $340 billion to this end, opening of nearly 500km of new toll roads and well as dozens of new dams, ports and airports.
However, progress has been slower than some hoped – government figures show half of the villages in the east of the country are still without power.
Prabowo Subianto (‘the retired general’)
Prabowo’s background couldn’t contrast more with his rival.
The son of a Minister of the regime, Prabowo went on to marry the second daughter of Suharto – the dictator who ran the country with an iron fist for 30 years.
He also served as a special forces commander, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in the regime’s army and conducting controversial operations in East Timor during Indonesia’s bloody occupation of the country. His unit also took part in the kidnapping of domestic political activists in the last years of the regime.
When the regime fell in 1998, Prabowo was dishonourably discharged from the army over his part in the kidnappings and subsequently banned from the United States over alleged human rights abuses. He went into voluntary exile in Jordan the same year.
Since returning to the country in 2009, the retired general has built up a political coalition with conservative Islamist parties and sold himself as a champion of the rural poor, promising to create more rural jobs. He is currently the elected president of the Indonesian Farmers’ Association.
Indonesia hosts the world’s biggest Muslim population, with around 225 million of the country’s 264 million inhabitants reporting themselves as adherents to Islam.
Suppressed under the dictatorship, conservative Muslims have emerged as a potent political force in recent years. Last year, Islamist parliamentarians almost succeeded in passing a bill which would have made extramarital and homosexual sex illegal.
Both candidates have pandered to this growing movement, though Prabowo has as been more outspoken in his support.
The former military man has earned endorsements from controversial Islamist Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, as well as the Prosperous Justice Party, the largest Islamist party in the Indonesian parliament, and the more moderate National Mandate Party.
Jokowi’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, brings with him the centrist and influential Islamist organization, Nahdlatul Ulama.
Although Prabowo’s campaign has been more hard-line, it is revealing that both campaigns have sought to sure-up their religious credentials.
The Old Guard versus the New
Despite his reinvention as an outspoken defender of the rural poor, crusader against inequality and pious Muslim, Prabowo has never quite been able to wash out the stains of his military past. The 2014 election saw him repeatedly questioned about his role in suppressing democrats under the regime.
This year, however, the former commander has played up elements of his record, striking a distinctly nationalistic tone and admonishing Jokowi for not investing enough in the military.
Jokowi’s appeal as a “new man” was a key feature of his 2014 campaign, and the President is still know for his blusukan visits (unannouned drop-ins) to the country’s poorest communities. However, the glimmer of his “mind-set revolution” campaign has somewhat faded, and the most of the latest campaign’s focus has been on infrastructure.
China and infrastructure
Both candidates attempted to woo Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population during last election and are nominally friendly to China.
However, since Jokowi’s government opened the door to $60 billion in Chinese infrastructure investment last year, Probowo has struck a more nativist tone – questioning why Indonesia needs to import Chinese workers to do jobs Indonesians could do, and threatening to re-examine many investments if elected.
Jokowi, on the other hand, has staked most of this campaign on his substantial infrastructure program.
Indonesia’s census suggests that the country has 2.8 million ethnic Chinese citizens. However, most independent experts put the figure much higher. Chinese Indonesians were the target of riots in 1998 which left 1000 dead, and so many don’t report their ethnic status.