Indonesian presidential campaign heats up with first debate

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Echoing the campaign tactics of Donald Trump, former Indonesian General Prabowo Subianto said his country, the world’s third-largest democracy, is in dire shape and he is the leader who will restore it to greatness.

Subianto, running for President a second time in the April 17 elections, faced a major campaign test yesterday when he and his running mate, millionaire businessman Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, debate President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and his vice presidential pick, conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, in the first of five debates.

The retired general’s message might appear to be lifted from Trump’s playbook of angry populism but Subianto has been at it far longer. He lost narrowly to Widodo in the 2014 election, a result he angrily refused to accept, and was a losing vice presidential candidate in 2004.

A rousing strongman-style speaker, Subianto rails against poverty in Indonesia and said it’s lagging its neighbours economically, militarily and technologically. With more than 260 million people and rich in natural resources, it should be a world power but instead, he says, is at risk of collapse.

“It’s easy to say ‘Indonesia will last a thousand years’. But my fellow countrymen, if a state is unable to pay for hospitals, cannot guarantee food for its people, has a weak military system, can it last a thousand years?” Subianto said in his first major campaign speech this week.

This September 23, 2018 file photo shows Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his contender Prabowo Subianto sharing a light moment. – AP

Senior figures in his campaign have even invoked ancient kingdoms based in Java and Sumatra, which held sway over parts of Southeast Asia, as an era of glory that modern Indonesia can reclaim.

But so far opinion polls indicate Subianto isn’t expanding his support.

Subianto, who was married to Suharto’s daughter, was a feared general during the dictatorship and his involvement in its human rights abuses remains anathema to politically progressive Indonesians who, if dissatisfied with Widodo, are firmly behind him as the lesser of two evils.

Polls show Widodo currently commanding between 52-54 per cent support and Subianto 30-35 per cent. But about 10 per cent of voters are undecided and another 15 per cent are considered swing voters, meaning the race has the potential to tighten.

Subianto’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, has said the polls, like those that misjudged the US presidential election and UK referendum on European Union membership, are wrong. Subianto has barely appeared on the campaign trial since campaigning officially began in September, leaving most appearances to his youthful running mate.

Alexander Arifanto, an Indonesian politics expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said populist soundbites and slogans can narrow the race considerably but overcoming Widodo’s ‘fortress’ of support in the provinces of Central Java and East Java is still a stretch for Subianto.

“The Prabowo team can only attack, coming up with real policy is something that they are not doing,” he said. “They don’t have any concrete plan to come up with an alternative economic agenda to compete with Jokowi.”

Widodo, the first Indonesian President from outside the country’s Jakarta elite, has made upgrading Indonesia’s creaking infrastructure the signature policy of his five year-term. A significant part of the effort has focussed on Java, which with more than 140 million people is the world’s most crowded major island.