Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy. On Wednesday, Indonesians will choose their president for the next five years. The election has two candidates. They are the governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, and former Army Special Forces Commander Prabowo Subianto.
In recent months, Joko Widodo -- or “Jokowi” as he is known in Indonesia -- has lost support among likely voters. At one time, public opinion surveys showed him leading his opponent by 25 points. Now, the two men seem to be very close in the race for the presidency.
Prabowo Subianto has put forward a strong campaign. Last week, some surveys showed him less than three points behind the Jakarta governor.
Douglas Ramage is a long-time Indonesia observer. He now works for the Bower Group Asia. He says the former commander has been preparing for the election for a long time.
“Bear in mind, this is a presidential candidate who may be one of the most-experienced presidential candidates in Asia. To think about it, he has run for president three times in Indonesia, and he has gotten good at it.”
A growing number of Indonesians have shown interest in the former general’s well-organized campaign and his speeches about reclaiming Indonesia’s resource wealth. But some people are worried about his activities as a military commander. Prabowo Subianto is accused of human rights abuses in East Timor. He has also been accused of ordering the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in 1998 while he led the Army special forces.
He has never faced the charges in a civilian court. His critics fear that if he becomes president, he will cancel democratic freedoms that Indonesians have enjoyed since the fall of former president Suharto.
Last week, the Wall Street Journalnewspaper published an interview with the United States Ambassador to Indonesia, Robert O. Blake. The ambassador said the U.S. government is not supporting any side in the presidential election. But he noted the government has urged Indonesia to investigate the reported rights abuses.
His comments angered some Indonesian officials. They say it is not unacceptable for the United States to become involved in Indonesia’s national issues. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called the comments, “a lapse of judgment that is difficult to accept.”
Aleksius Jemadu is a political science professor at Pelita Harapan University on the Indonesian island of Java. He says the United States wants an Indonesian leader who will support American foreign policy and interests.
“This is very clear that Prabowo’s administration is going to be very nationalistic and might not be easy for the United States to invite Indonesia within the strategic calculation of the United States, vis-a-vis China’s rising at the moment.”
Joko Widodo’s popularity appears to have been hurt by questions about his religion and ethnicity. The Jakarta governor was forced to dispute reports that he is Christian or ethnic Chinese. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Experts say his campaign has suffered because he had to spend time denying the reports. But he is known for his populist leadership and opposition to corruption -- qualities that appeal to some voters.
The presidential election is an important step in the nation’s democratic progress. It will be the first time power will be given from one elected leader to another. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has served two terms in office and is barred from seeking a third.