Indonesia presidential election: Expect a heated two-way race, say analysts

Indonesia's presidential election has developed into a two-way race between Mr Joko Widodo (left) and Mr Prabowo Subianto (right), though there are concerns that the contest will be a heated and polarising one from the onset. -- PHOTOS: EPA/AFP
Indonesia's presidential election has developed into a two-way race between Mr Joko Widodo (left) and Mr Prabowo Subianto (right), though there are concerns that the contest will be a heated and polarising one from the onset. -- PHOTOS: EPA/AFP

News that Indonesia's presidential election on July 9 will be a direct two-way race was greeted with relief by many, as the uncertainty of a second round is avoided.

But there is also some concern that the battle between Mr Joko Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and Mr Prabowo Subianto of the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party will be a heated and polarising one from the onset.

Mr Joko, the governor of Jakarta commonly known as Jokowi who has become a national star over the last two years, continues to lead in opinion polls, but Mr Prabowo, a former special forces general with a contentious past, is fast catching up.

And over the past 24 hours, the latter scored a coup in the form of support from the Golkar Party of former president Suharto, which won 91 seats in the next Parliament at last month's general election.

Overnight, the tables have turned somewhat.

"Recent developments suggest the momentum is now with Prabowo-Hatta," political economist Dr Umar Juoro of the Centre for Information and Development Studies tells The Straits Times.

"It is an open contest, and both have equal chance of winning or losing. Whoever wins will likely do so by a thin margin," he adds.

For one, Mr Prabowo has a slight numerical advantage. 

The coalition of six parties that registered Mr Prabowo and his running mate, former coordinating economic minister Hatta Rajasa, command 52 per cent of seats, or 292 seats, in the new Parliament which will be sworn in this October.

Mr Joko and his running mate, former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, are backed by a four-party coalition which won 37 per cent of seats, or 207 seats, in the House.

Parties only need 20 per cent of seats to field a ticket, and there is the possibility that if Mr Joko wins, Golkar would likely back the new administration.

The Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with 61 seats, is set to sit out the election and stay neutral in the meantime.

To be sure, the Indonesian voter has historically been split, and is not bound to support the candidate that the party he voted for in April backs today.

Even party members and MPs have expressed dissent with the candidates their party backs, and members from Golkar, PAN and PPP have publicly said they will not back Mr Prabowo.  

But Mr Hatta told reporters on Tuesday that after he and Mr Prabowo called on the president on Monday night, he was confident the Democrats would back the Prabowo-Hatta ticket "informally".

And Mr Prabowo has started to project himself as someone who would carry on with the outgoing administration's policies and ensure continuity - in contrast with Mr Joko's message of change. 

Cleverly, Mr Prabowo has also poached two disappointed presidential or vice-presidential hopefuls from the National Awakening Party (PKB) to his campaign - former constitutional court chief Mahfud MD and dangdut star Rhoma Irama - even though the PKB officially supported the Jokowi-Kalla ticket.

On the other hand, Mr Joko remains a favourite among investors in Indonesia and the business community.

While there is some concern about the nationalist economic rhetoric from both Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo in recent days, Standard Chartered economist Fauzi Ichsan says this is inevitable during election season.

But, he adds, the track record of the administration of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri of the PDI-P from 2001-2004 was more market-friendly compared to the nationalistic policy changes of recent years.

zakirh@sph.com.sg