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Indonesia presidential poll: Moment of truth

Voting is underway in a presidential election tipped to be the tightest contest in the country's history.
Last modified: 9 Jul 2014 03:34

A decisive moment for Indonesia. Never before have I seen Indonesians so passionate about an election. Ardent non-voters have signed up because every vote counts. I watched democracy being born in Indonesia sixteen years ago. For the first time I can really feel the importance of it to its people.

I still remember clearly the fear of people when asked to share their opinion in the late 1990's before strongman Suharto was forced to step down.

Hard to imagine now with Indonesians being one of the most fanatic users of social media worldwide. Freedom of speech has become such an accepted right that many have forgotten how hard they had to fight for it.

Some worry that with these elections the fate of Indonesia's young democracy might be at stake, because one of the candidates, former general Prabowo Subianto, has shown his aversion against it several times. This worry has prompted prominent Indonesians and media outlets to openly endorse the other candidate Joko Widodo, Jakarta's governor who is also called Jokowi, who is seen as a true democrat.

Truth is, democracy has not brought food on the table in many Indonesian households. That's why Prabowo, who was found involved in kidnappings by a military council in 1998, has gained such popularity. His campaign hinting that Indonesians were better off in the old days of Suharto appealed to many who have been struggling.

And there are those who are too young to know what the old times were like.

Part of Prabowo's unlikely rise is also caused by the notorious indecisiveness of current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Although he has managed to bring stability to Indonesia, his second term has been utterly disappointing. Urgent matters like the lack of infrastructure and expensive oil subsidies have not been clearly dealt with and under his rule religious intolerance and the gap between the rich and poor have increased.

Although he was elected on a strong anti-corruption agenda his Democrat Party has been tainted by scandals of fraud.

By portraying himself as a strong, decisive leader, Prabowo has managed to create hope that under his leadership things will get done. The former Special Forces commander has strongly denied that he wants to take Indonesia back in time.

The contrast with the soft spoken, not very articulate Jokowi, could not be bigger. The former furniture seller turned politician is called a man of the people.

He quickly became popular after he was elected mayor of Solo, a city in West Java. His unconventional approach of visiting poor neighbourhoods and directly asking people what they need created new kind of leadership many in Indonesia are longing for.

Jokowi would have easily become Indonesia's next president only four months ago when he was nearly 30 percent ahead of Prabowo in the polls.

After a smear campaign against Jokowi alleging he was a communist and not a Muslim, Prabowo's popularity started to rise quickly. Jokowi's seemingly unorganised campaign did not much help him either.

More than 188 million Indonesians will have to decide if they want a soft spoken new leader, with no ties to past regimes, or a tough speaking president who has said that democracy and Indonesia are not compatible.