JAKARTA, Indonesia — The opponents are set in Indonesia’s presidential elections: the departing Jakarta governor whose populist streak has swept him to front-runner status versus a former army general with a checkered human rights record and the support of the country’s rightwing, Islamist block.
Joko Widodo, known across the country as “Jokowi,” choose former Vice President Jusuf Kalla as his vice president — a pairing forecast to be comfortably on top come election day on July 9 in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. The pair is supported by a strong and relatively small coalition of political parties, raising the prospect of stable and efficient government that might be able to push through economic reforms and tackle corruption.
“We have confidence, God willing, we will be able to bring change to our beloved country,” said Widodo, 52, as he stood next to Kalla while making the announcement Monday at a historic building in downtown Jakarta. They then hopped on bicycles and pedaled to the Election Commission to register.
His opponent, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, announced his running mate as current economics minister Hatta Rajasa. They planned to register their candidacy Tuesday.
Opinion polls have shown support for Subianto, a former son-in-law of ex-dictator Suharto, hardening in recent weeks but still trailing Widodo by about 12 points. Subianto got a boost when Golkar, the second-largest party in the country, announced it would join the coalition nominating him and not field its own candidate. The effect is unclear since Indonesians in the past have chosen presidents on character rather than their political parties.
Kalla, 72, was vice president under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his first term of 2004-2009, when he gained a reputation as a leader who can cut through bureaucracy and get things done. A native of South Sulawesi province in eastern Indonesia and successful businessmen, he is currently chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross.
Kalla’s experience should boost Widodo, who is new to national politics and comparatively young. Widodo is seen by many as a refreshing break from typical Indonesian politicians who have tended to be either former army generals or tycoons.
Subianto has projected a tough-man image and tried to appeal to voters who think Indonesia needs a strong leader. He has also pandered to economic nationalists, worrying foreign investors.
He has been accused of human rights abuses in East Timor in the 1980s, when an independence army was fighting Indonesian rule. He has been linked to the abductions of student activists during the dying days of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. He has denied any involvement.
Presidential candidates must be nominated by political parties with a set amount of seats in parliament. None won enough votes in April’s legislative elections to field a candidate alone. Subianto cobbled together a coalition by promising Cabinet seats to Golkar and four smaller parties, including those from the country’s Islamic, rightwing fringe, meaning the country could take a step in that direction if he wins.
Political analyst Yunarto Wijaya said Widodo’s party chose Kalla based on a close reading of opinion polls.
“It was the most realistic choice,” he said. “All the surveys showed the electability was the highest.”
Widodo has not given many details on what policies he intends to unveil to tackle Indonesia’s pressing problems, including cooling economic growth, massive infrastructure challenges and deeply ingrained corruption. As Jakarta governor he won plaudits for trying to tackle traffic congestion and flooding, while he opposed a big hike to the city’s minimum wage, upsetting unions.
Monday’s developments mark Indonesia’s first democratic elections in which only two candidates will run for president, removing the need for a runoff. That is likely to please both investors wanting some political certainty and many regular Indonesians, whose media have been feeding them wall-to-wall politics for the last 18 months.