JAKARTA: Indonesia’s heavy metal-loving leader Joko Widodo faces off against ex-military general Prabowo Subianto in the race to lead the world’s third-biggest democracy on Wednesday, a re-run of the 2014 election contest narrowly won by Widodo.
A record 245,000 candidates are running for public office from the presidency down to local legislator positions, including an Olympic gold medallist, a pop diva, a frontman who lost his bandmates and wife in a killer tsunami and even a late dictator’s son convicted of masterminding a judge’s murder.
Widodo’s landmark 2014 victory capped a remarkable rise for the down-to-earth outsider in a political scene dominated by political dynasties from the era of Indonesia’s late dictator Suharto.
A one-time furniture exporter, the 57-year-old shot to prominence when he was elected governor of the capital Jakarta in 2012 after a successful stint as mayor of his hometown Solo.
Raised in a bamboo shack in a riverside slum, his humble demeanour and love for headbangers Metallica proved a hit with voters fed up with a graft-prone elite.
But the father of three — popularly known as Jokowi — carries a mixed track record into the polls.
He championed an ambitious drive to build much-needed roads, airports and other infrastructure across the sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, including Jakarta’s first mass rapid transit system.
He also ushered in or expanded popular health and social development schemes, including cash for the rural poor.
But his rights record has come under scrutiny, with an uptick in discriminatory attacks on Indonesia’s small LGBT community during his tenure, and high-profile cases of intolerance directed at religious minority groups in the Muslim majority nation.
He has also been accused of creeping authoritarianism following arrests of opposition campaigners and a revised law that let Jakarta ban mass organisations.
Viewed as weak and out of his depth in his first year in office, Widodo consolidated power in part by appointing Suharto-era army generals with chequered pasts to key posts.
He has further isolated moderate voters by picking conservative Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin — known for his disparaging views of minorities — as his vice presidential nominee.
Widening inequality and a slump in the rupiah currency have sparked criticism of Widodo’s economic stewardship, despite annual growth of about five percent and low inflation.
His big-ticket infrastructure projects have also been knocked for offering little benefit to tens of millions of poor Indonesians.
Subianto lost by a whisker five years ago, cutting Widodo’s once-huge lead to just a few points by polling day.
The ex-general — and ex-husband of one Suharto’s daughters — faces another uphill battle in 2019, trailing by double digits in most opinion polls.
Prabowo has tried and failed to win high office several times over the past 15 years, including an unsuccessful 2009 run for the vice presidency.
But his ambitions have been dogged by ties to the Suharto family and a dark past — Subianto ordered the abduction of democracy activists in the dying days of the dictator’s rule in 1998 and has been accused of committing atrocities in East Timor.
He was dismissed from the military over the kidnappings.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019