Commentary | 13 April 2019

Four men, three Indonesian contradictions

The choice of running mate by both candidates illustrates their efforts to overcome Indonesia's size, diversity and difficulty to govern.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The choice of running mate by both candidates illustrates their efforts to overcome Indonesia's size, diversity and difficulty to govern.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

When 193 million Indonesians vote on Wednesday in the world’s biggest direct presidential election they must choose two out of four men who could not be more different in background and temperament.

At the presidential level, incumbent Joko Widodo, a workman-like former furniture businessman from humble beginnings, is facing off against Prabowo Subianto, a fiery ex-special forces general and one-time son-in-law of long-time president Suharto. For his running mate, Jokowi, as the President is known, picked Ma’ruf Amin, an ageing but powerful Islamic leader known for his intolerant views towards minorities. Prabowo opted for Sandiaga Uno, a photogenic investor who has wowed younger Indonesians with his selfies (and $US100 million [$140 million]  spent on the campaign).

These four disparate characters embody divergent visions for the future of a country that is still working out its place in the world, 74 years after it proclaimed independence from the Dutch. And they reflect three key contradictions at the heart of this improbable nation.

Multi-religious state

First, nearly 90 per cent of Indonesia’s 260 million people are Muslims but it is a multi-religious state, with six official faiths, not an Islamic state like neighbouring Malaysia and Brunei.

Second, Indonesia is habitually reliant on foreign investment to develop its economy – and cover its current account deficit. But it remains determinedly protectionist, with price controls, widespread scepticism about foreign trade and a constitutional commitment that natural resources “be controlled by the state”.

Third, since Suharto’s authoritarian regime was ousted in 1998, Indonesia has built one of Asia’s most robust election systems, which allowed Jokowi to rise from obscurity to become leader of the world’s third-biggest democracy. But while the rules of the game have changed substantially, the players have not. Corrupt oligarchs, rent-seeking political party hacks and human-rights abusing former generals still command outsize influence in Indonesia’s democratic system.

Tolerance and diversity

The choice of running mate by both candidates illustrates their efforts to overcome these contradictions. Jokowi, who represents a political party known for celebrating tolerance and diversity, picked the conservative Ma’ruf to neutralise criticism about his own Islamic credentials. Prabowo, who champions economic self-sufficiency and has cultivated support from hard-line Islamists, chose Sandiaga, a foreign-educated fund manager who has been a mainstay on the international business circuit in Indonesia.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, the two competing pairs appear to be converging on some issues.

The 2014 race between Jokowi and Prabowo was pitched as a contest between the democratic champion of the weak and the would-be strongman accused of human rights abuses in the Suharto era. But while Jokowi benefited from Indonesia’s competitive elections, he has proven to be a poor guardian of democracy. He has sought compromises with corrupt politicians and intolerant religious leaders, and surrounded himself with former generals happy to trample on human rights and oversee the jailing of government critics on dubious grounds. Now some human rights activists who backed Jokowi last time are urging Indonesians to abstain rather than give their vote to either man.

Protectionist pronouncements

On economic policy, both presidential candidates vacillate between warm words to foreign investors about the need for more openness and protectionist pronouncements for domestic consumption.

When it comes to religion, and the rise of a bitter new identity politics, both campaigns have instrumentalised Islam to try to rally their supporters. Both campaigns have tried to paint the other presidential candidate as a less-than-committed Muslim. And both Jokowi and Prabowo picked VP candidates who played a key role in the downfall of Basuki Tjahaha Purnama ( also known as Ahok), the Christian former Jakarta governor who was jailed in 2017 for insulting Islam.

So which pair will Indonesians choose? The everyman President and the conservative cleric or the elite strongman and the flashy financier?

Jokowi and Ma’ruf are the frontrunners, with a double-digit lead in most opinion polls and all the advantages of incumbency. Prabowo initially seemed reluctant to enter the race, fearing a third defeat in his lifelong ambition to lead his country. But he has stepped up his campaign in the last few weeks, pushed – and financed – by Sandiaga, who has one eye on the next election, in  2024.

Struggle to resolve  tensions

Indonesians are fortunate to have the choice, at a time when democracy is in retreat around the world. Many other countries have failed to make the leap from authoritarianism to regular, free and fair elections. Just look at the impasse in Thailand.

Ultimately, whoever wins the mandate of the Indonesian people will struggle to resolve the political, social and economic tensions that continue to pull this country in different directions. When Indonesia’s founders declared independence from the Dutch in 1945, they promised prosaically that “matters related to the transfer of power etc will be executed in a thorough manner and as rapidly as possible”. With four such different men vying to lead the country today, it is clear that Indonesia is still a nation in the making.