JAKARTA — As the world’s third-largest democracy began voting Wednesday to elect a new president, Indonesians are divided between two very different choices: a one-time furniture maker and a wealthy ex-army general with close links to former dictator Suharto.
Just a couple of months ago, the election was considered firmly in favor of Joko Widodo, who rose from humble beginnings to become the governor of Jakarta with a squeaky-clean political record.
But the race is now too close to call thanks to a late surge by Prabowo Subianto, who has wooed legions of supporters with his calls for nationalism despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses during his military career and his connection with Suharto—his former father-in-law.
When the polls opened Wednesday morning to about 190 million people, analysts predicted that undecided voters will determine the winner. Preliminary quick count results were expected later in the day, and extra police and military forces were added in case violence erupts. High voter turnout was expected following campaigning that has energized people across the country.
“Unlike previous presidential elections, this time I’m so excited to participate because Indonesia needs a change,” said Widodo supporter Imam Arifin, who went to school with US President Barack Obama when he lived in the country as a child. “I believe a candidate without a past dark track record can bring a better future to Indonesia.”
About 2 million Indonesians abroad have been casting their votes since Saturday, and the overseas turnout has been significantly higher than the 22 percent in April’s legislative elections, said Wahid Supriyadi, a foreign ministry official who heads the overseas election committee.
Supriyadi said so many voters showed up in Hong Kong on Sunday that more than 500 were unable to cast ballot.
The two candidates are vastly different in their policies and styles. Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, is a soft-spoken man who likes to wear sneakers and casual plaid shirts, listen to heavy metal music and make impromptu visits to the slums. Seen as a man of the people who wants to advance democratic reform even though he lacks experience in national politics, he represents a break from the past as the first candidate in direct elections with no connection to Suharto-era politics.
Subianto is known for his thundering campaign speeches, a penchant for luxury cars and having trotted up to one rally on an expensive horse. He has the support of the most hard-line Islamic parties and has sparked concern among foreign investors worried about protectionism and a possible return to more authoritative policies.
“Many Indonesian Muslims prefer Prabowo’s strong and dynamic character, which can stand up in facing the foreign policies of neighboring countries and the US,” said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesia Institute of Science. “Other people are responding positively to Jokowi’s caring and earthy traits.”
Smear tactics have surfaced in both camps. But Widodo, 53, has blamed his fall in opinion polls from a lead of more than 12 percentage points in May to just around 3.5 points on character assaults that accused him, among other things, of not being a follower of Islam. He has denounced the charges as lies, but says it’s hard to undo the damage it caused in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
“I think these black campaigns were effective enough to convince communities,” said Hamdi Muluk, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia. “And that has directly ruined Widodo’s image.”
But he added that Subianto’s past, including ordering the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists prior to Suharto’s fall in 1998, have not gone unnoticed and some voters fear a return to the brutal dictator’s New Order regime. Details about the abductions surfaced recently after the official findings of an army investigative panel were leaked.
“Considering the role models and figures behind Widodo’s team, I believe many new voters tend to support Jokowi,” Muluk said. “A return to the New Order is not popular among youngsters or new voters. They are interested more in change.”
The race is the country’s third direct presidential election, and has played out with fury in the social media crazed country of around 240 million people. There has been a frenzy of “unfriending” on Facebook pages belonging to users who support different camps.
For the first time in its 31-year history, the English-language Jakarta Post last week endorsed a presidential candidate. In choosing Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the paper said it could not remain silent because the stakes were too high.
“Rarely in an election has the choice been so definitive,” it said in denouncing Prabowo. “Never before has a candidate ticked all the boxes on our negative checklist. And for that we cannot do nothing.”
But Subianto, 62, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been gaining allies. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party, which said it was neutral earlier in the campaign, openly endorsed Subianto just two weeks before the election. Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term after 10 years in office.
Subianto’s vows of tough leadership and promises that “Indonesia will become an Asian tiger once again” have also gained footing with some voters fed up with Yudhoyono, who has been criticized for being ineffective and weak on some issues, including those involving neighbors Australia and Malaysia. The president’s party has also been plagued by a string of recent high-profile corruption scandals.
Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.