Jul 7, 2014

Indonesia - Indonesia's presidential race and Asean

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For Indonesians, only two choices come on Wednesday. The first candidate is an "ex-war commander" with a chequered history of rights abuses, Prabowo Subianto. The second is Joko Widodo or Jokowi, the charismatic governor of Jakarta with an untested record in national affairs.

At this moment, who will emerge a decisive winner nobody really knows. This known-unknown scenario has kept the world's third largest democracy hanging in the balance and other less democratic Asean members watching without blinking an eye.

Until last weekend, most published polls placed Jokowi ahead of Prabowo by a narrow margin — some?thing which Indonesian political pundits thought could produce a surprise on polling day. Prabowo's popularity has gone up in recent weeks since the Jokowi "fever" broke out last August. During the general election in May, most polls predicted the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle or PDI-D would win at least 25 per cent of the votes, but that didn't happen. It got less than 20 per cent. This time, the poll forecasts must not be taken seriously - just a rough indicator of public mood. In these coming few days, what happens on the ground

and in the cyber world of social media could be a decisive factor.

As in other developing countries, a highly contested election could easily lead to money politics as a means to ensure votes. Indonesian politics has not been devoid of vote-buying especially in kampong areas. An Indonesian journalist joked that the only thing flowing without interruption in his country today was the money trail.

Indonesian politics today is so divisive due to the fierce presidential race with only two candidates contesting — Prabowo or Jokowi. In the past, more candidates contested and in the last presidential election there was a clear winner. So the campaign energy was diverse, not concentrating so intensely on personalities as in the current situation.

To win this week, all types of smear tactics have been adopted involving race, religion and family backgrounds. The worst were racist comments of Jokowi's background -claiming him to be a Singaporean of Chinese descent - and the appointment of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama as acting governor. In the world's largest Muslim nation, it is odd that being a Muslim or not can be used as a political benchmark, so is being a non-Javanese.

Fortunately, Indonesian political rallies comprise moderate crowds. They do not come out and face-off in large numbers like Thai supporters often do. But some followers of Prabowo are hardline and pretty fierce. In general, they are not as organised as their Thai counterparts who often turn out with decent food, premier entertainment and good sanitation.

So far, no major conflicts have been reported between the two camps, except one in Yogjakarta on June 26, when overzealous supporters of Prabawo briefly clashed with those of Jokowi. The incident, which injured several persons, was blamed on bad police control, which failed to respond quickly. However, as the polling date draws near, the political temperature goes up. Last week, Jokowi's supporters attacked the headquarters of TV One owned by Prabowo's coalition partner, Aburizal Bakrie, chief of the Golkar Party.

Interestingly, the real campaign is being fought in traditional and new media battlefields. Both sides have used all media, including cartoons, with a heavy focus on social media in spreading and countering rumours and insults against the opponents. With 250 million people, including active netizens on the widely used and accessible Facebook and Twitter, this presidential race has relied on information and propaganda management rather than serious policy platforms. Essential issues affecting the people's and country's future are not being seriously discussed as they should be, despite the five debates for all candidates.

Since the 1998 democratisation, Indonesian media has been free and diversified. Conglomerates have taken ownership of media outlets which display their proprietors' preferences and choices in this election. Compared to the previous presidential run, this time campaigning via social media is tense and can swing votes among young first-timers and the undecided — which could be 20 per cent of the electorate, according to some. Under these circumstances, the respected Jakarta Post decided on Saturday to endorse Jokowi — the first time in the paper's 31-year history it has done this.

Within the Indonesian context, the proliferation of social media has had a positive outcome — it acts as a safety valve to air dissenting views and outrageous claims, deterring them being sounded off in public, which could easily lead to clashes and violence (as in the case of Thailand).

As the world focuses on Indonesia's democratic potential within a secularised Muslim environment, Asean members are more interested in the immediate consequences of this week's winner on their future. For the past decade, Indonesia has made Asean more open. It has also provided a forward-looking leadership for Asean, strengthening political and security cooperation among members and raising international profiles.

With the Asean Community approaching in less than 540 days, any new Indonesian leader with a strong domestic and nationalistic agenda could affect the ongoing community-building efforts and economic integration. Jakarta's record on economic liberalisation under the Asean Economic Community's blueprint has not been impressive in comparison with more commendable efforts in other non-economic pillars.

Albeit these shortcomings, Indonesia's democracy has a positive spin for Asean as a whole, as the country has lifted itself from one of the lowest standard bearers to the grouping's prime mover.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Business & Investment Opportunities 

Saigon Business Corporation Pte Ltd (SBC) is incorporated in Singapore since 1994. 

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