JAKARTA, Indonesia — Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo was ahead in Indonesia’s razor-tight presidential election Wednesday with more than 80 percent of the votes tallied, according to early quick count results. But supporters of his rival, Prabowo Subianto, a wealthy ex-army general with close links to former dictator Suharto, urged caution saying it is too early to declare a victory after what has been the most polarizing election campaign since Indoneisa’s transition to democracy in 1998.
Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, was ahead by about 52 percent, while Prabowo Subianto had about 48 percent of the vote, according to most credible quick count surveys
“At the time being, the quick counts show that Jokowi-Kalla is the winner,” Widodo told a news conference, referring to his vice-presidential running mate Jusuf Kalla.
Just a couple of months ago, the election was considered firmly in favor of Widodo, 53, who rose from humble beginnings as a furniture maker to become the governor of Jakarta with a squeaky-clean political record.
But a late surge by Subianto, 62, vastly improved his chances after he wooed legions of supporters with calls for nationalism despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses during his military career and his connection with Suharto — his former father-in-law.
Widodo’s appeal is that despite a lack of experience in national politics, he is seen as a man of the people who wants to advance democratic reforms and is untainted by the often corrupt military and business elite which has run the country for decades. He is the first candidate in direct elections with no connection to the 1966-1998 Suharto-era and its excesses.
“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 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.”
“There is a political excitement. We can see how people are showing up to vote full of joy,” Widodo said, as he voted in central Jakarta accompanied by his wife. “Today, the future of this nation for the next five years will be determined.”
The two candidates are vastly different in their policies and styles. Widodo 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.
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 U.S.,” said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesia Institute of Science. “Other people are responding positively to Jokowi’s caring and earthy traits.”
The campaign period was marred by smear tactics from both camps. But Widodo 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.
At the same time, Subianto’s campaign has been more effective and better financed. He also enjoyed the support of two of the country’s largest television stations.
“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 about 240 million people. There has been a frenzy of “unfriending” on Facebook pages belonging to users who support different camps.
Subianto, 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. After voting Wednesday, he called on both sides to respect the results.
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. WP