Old rivals face off in Indonesia’s presidential election

 When Indonesian voters go to the polls on Wednesday, they will have to choose between an incumbent whose man-of-the people image has been tarnished and a nationalist former general with a questionable human rights record.

The election pitting Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto is a repeat of the 2014 poll, which Joko narrowly won.

Joko appears to be on track for re-election, with most recent polls suggesting he has a comfortable two-digit lead, but analysts say Prabowo could still pull off a surprise.

When Joko won the election five years ago, he was an outsider with no ties to the country’s political and military elite, having risen from obscurity as a furniture businessman who later became the mayor of the mid-sized town of Solo in Central Java. 

Today he counts former generals with ties to the country’s autocratic past among his trusted aides.

Joko has touted his successes in improving the country’s dilapidated infrastructure by building new roads, ports, airports and dams.

His government has completed a trans-Java highway stretching about 1,000 kilometres and built or renovated airports and seaports. He also recently inaugurated the first metro line in the capital, Jakarta. 

But Joko’s human rights record still leaves much too be desired, activist groups and analysts say. 

Rights activists say he has not pursued meaningful policy initiatives to address past human rights violations, a key campaign promise.

The president also appears to be increasingly thin-skinned in the face of criticism. 

Joko “has allowed human rights, the rule of law and the protection of minorities to weaken since he was elected in 2014,” said Ben Bland, an Indonesia expert at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

“Law enforcement has become politicized, with government critics arrested and jailed on questionable charges,” he wrote on the institute’s website.

The president has failed to stem the anti-gay hysteria that has gripped the country over the past three years.

Police have raided places frequented by gay people and briefly detained hundreds suspected of being homosexual.

The Pariaman city government on Sumatra island last year issued a bylaw that imposes a fine of up to 1 million rupiah (71 dollars) on gay and transgender people “who conduct activity that disturbs public order” or commit “immoral same-sex acts.”

Joko’s choice as his running mate of senior Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who is known for his anti-gay views, has raised concerns that he is pandering to the religious right.

Ma’ruf, the head the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country’s semi-official clerical body, has said that homosexuality should be criminalized and that the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect is not part of Islam.

On the economic front, growth has been stagnant, at around 5 per cent annually, falling short of Joko’s campaign promise of 7 per cent. 

Analysts said Indonesia’s economy needs to grow faster than 5 per cent to escape the so-called “middle income trap,” a phenomenon in which a country’s growth slows after reaching certain levels.

The country has also struggled with a widening account deficit and a weak currency, which fell in September to the lowest level since the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Corruption in the government remains rampant despite Joko’s reputation as incorruptible. Several of his political allies have been jailed or arrested for corruption.

Setya Novanto, chairman of the Golkar party, a member of the ruling coalition, was last year sentenced to 15 years in jail for receiving 7.3 million dollars in kickbacks for garnering parliamentary support for a 440-million-dollar government project to issue electronic ID cards.

Prabowo has promised to treat all citizens equally, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. 

“Our teachers, our Islamic clerics have always taught us that Indonesia’s Islam is one that brings good to all things in the universe,” Prabowo told more than 100,000 supporters during a rally in Jakarta recently.

But many remain suspicious of the challenger. 

Prabowo, a firebrand nationalist, counts among his supporters conservative Muslim groups that have persecuted minority Islamic sects and are opposed to gay rights.

“Minority groups like us can’t expect much of either candidate,” said a spokesman for the Ahmadiyah Indonesia Community, Yendra Budiana.

“But it’s especially so for Prabowo, as he is supported by hardline groups,” he said.

Prabowo himself has been accused of human rights violations during his time in the army in the 1990s, including over the kidnappings and disappearances of pro-democracy activists in the dying days of the Suharto regime in 1998.

He has denied the allegations.

This year’s election will be held simultaneously with parliamentary polls, which are being contested by 16 national parties.

Nearly 250,000 candidates are vying for more than 20,000 seats in the national, provincial and municipal parliaments.

About 193 million people, including 80 million people born after 1980, are eligible to vote, making it the world’s biggest direct presidential election, according to the General Election Commission. 

There will be around 800,000 polling stations and six million election workers.

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