Indonesia’s next president: The apparently anointed president finds himself in a tough scrap

Indonesia’s next president: The apparently anointed president finds himself in a tough scrap

Jun 21st 2014 | JAKARTA | From the print edition

DURING a recent televised debate between the two men vying to become Indonesia’s next president, Prabowo Subianto strode across the set to hug his startled rival, Joko Widodo. A theatrical gesture meant to convince viewers that even a fiery-tempered former special-forces general has a softer side, it was still a striking show of civility in a race that has turned much nastier since it narrowed to a two-way contest.

Since the start of the campaign on June 3rd (the vote is due on July 9th), both camps have complained to the police about smears, or “black” campaigns. Mr Joko, the governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, has had to counter claims that he is a closet Christian—a potentially damaging charge in a largely Muslim country. He has appeared alongside Islamic preachers and circulated pictures of himself on the haj to Mecca.

r Prabowo, a former son-in-law to Suharto, Indonesia’s late dictator, has long been dogged by questions about his human-rights record. He was dismissed from the army for his role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s. Voters were reminded of this recently when a letter from the army’s disciplinary council surfaced online; it recommended that he be cashiered. Now Mr Prabowo’s team has denounced as slander claims by Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, a former intelligence chief, once Mr Prabowo’s commanding officer, but now in Mr Joko’s camp, that their man is a “psychopath”.

It is not surprising that the gloves have come off. Mr Joko—usually known as Jokowi—is still ahead, but in several recent polls his lead has narrowed from 20 points not so long ago to single digits. Mr Prabowo’s campaign, bankrolled by his billionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is formidably effective. And he is backed by two tycoons whose television channels are watched by about half the country’s viewers.

Jokowi’s creditable performance in the first of five televised debates on June 9th may have stabilised his ratings. Many observers had expected the soft-spoken Jakarta governor to take a beating from Mr Prabowo, a fluent orator. But Jokowi was well prepared and ably assisted by his vice-presidential running mate, Jusuf Kalla, who landed some punches during a lively exchange about human rights.

Even without Mr Kalla there in the second debate on June 15th, Jokowi parried Mr Prabowo’s attempts to portray him as a puppet of foreign capitalists. Admitting a “neo-liberal” taste for free-market economics is political suicide in Indonesia. Jokowi just about managed to sound enough of an economic nationalist to appease the voters without irreparably alienating foreign investors. Still, Mr Prabowo did much better than in the first debate.

A whiff of panic is discernible in the Jokowi camp, baffled as to why their man’s lead has been eroding so much, among young voters especially. And many observers are for the first time having to contemplate what a Prabowo presidency might mean for Indonesia.

Mr Prabowo has made no secret of his desire to return the country to its original August 18th 1945 constitution—a document Marcus Mietzner of the Australian National University describes as a “dictator’s dream”. Among other things, reinstating it would mean removing the checks on presidential power introduced after the overthrow of Suharto in 1998. Should he become president, Mr Prabowo might not be able to accomplish this. But, merely by trying, he could cause Indonesia’s young democracy enormous harm.



About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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