With polls suggesting Prabowo Subianto is closing in on frontrunner Joko Widodo ahead of the July 9 Indonesian presidential vote, Gregory Poling tells DW economic issues will ultimately decide the outcome of the vote.
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation and the third-largest democracy after India and the United States, is heading to the polls on July 9 to elect a new president. The vote, pitting the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (main picture, right) against former general, Prabowo Subianto (main picture, left), will determine who will lead the archipelago over the next five years. Some 186 million people are eligible to vote.
Opinion polls suggest that 52-year-old Jokowi, the candidate of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-Perjuangan) is the favorite. But there are indications that 62-year-old Prabowo, who has the backing of four other political parties, is catching up.
In a DW interview, Gregory Poling, Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), says Jokowi has lost some of the "rock star quality" that accompanied his rise to governor and says that the economy education and the social safety net will be the key issues in this election.
DW: What will be the decisive issues that will determine the outcome of the election?
Gregory Poling: Corruption has been a big focus of the campaign, with both candidates vowing to clean up the system. This is clearly a motivating issue, especially for young Indonesians voting for the first time and fed up with the previous administration's slow progress on its promises to fight graft.
Poling: "It seems that the rock star quality that accompanied Jokowi's rise to governor of Jakarta has dissipated"
That said, Indonesia is like any other democracy, and politics are local. For the majority of voters, bread and butter issues surrounding the economy and access to social services will be number one.
How would you describe Indonesia's electoral process thus far?
To date, the campaign and election have had some problems, including the electoral commission nearly missing its legal deadline to count votes in the parliamentary elections. That said, for a still young democracy, Indonesia has been remarkably successful in holding a free and fair contest across a country of a quarter billion people. One clear inefficiency remains the holding of two separate elections for parliament and president, but this will be the last election cycle in which that model is used.
How important are these elections for the country?
These elections are critical because they mark the real consolidation of Indonesian democracy. The accepted wisdom among scholars is that a democracy isn't really consolidated until there has been a peaceful transfer of power from one duly elected party to another. President Yudhoyono was the first directly elected president; now he is peacefully stepping down and a new head of state from a different party will take the mantle. That's a big deal.
Some recent opinion polls have suggested that lead of presidential candidate and Jakarta governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is narrowing against his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto. How is Prawobo managing to catch up?
Every indication is that Jokowi's lead, which formerly topped 20 percent, has shrunk to single digits. In large part that is because a huge number of the electorate during earlier polling was still undecided - and in fact many still are. Moreover, it seems that the rock star quality that accompanied Jokowi's rise to governor of Jakarta has dissipated, which is to be expected.
Jokowi is now in the business of politics and governing, which naturally comes with some stumbles. On Prabowo's side, polling shows that people view him as less affable but more decisive than Jokowi, which clearly plays to much of the electorate. I cannot say who will win; the polls still show Jokowi out in front, but it's a democracy and anything can happen.
Do you think that the two candidates have focused on the country's main problems in their respective campaigns?
Yes, for the most part, at least with regards to domestic issues as foreign policy never wins elections. Both have discussed the main issues holding the country back economically such as bureaucratic red tape, poor infrastructure, corruption, etc. Both have also engaged in a fair bit of economic nationalism, which plays well with voters. And both have discussed strengthening education and the social safety net.
These elections are critical because they mark the real consolidation of Indonesian democracy, says Poling
Once the new government is formed, what will be the main political challenges new Indonesian administration will have to face?
Right off the bat, the new president will face the troubles of managing a coalition, which will start with the appointment of his cabinet. This was always a thorn in the side of Yudhoyono, who had to deal with an unwieldy and often sabotaging coalition. Clearly Prabowo, with his larger, more diverse, and in some cases controversial, coalition will face more difficulty in this regard.
Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).