JAKARTA - Farmers are shaping up as a key demographic for presidential candidates Joko Widodo and his rival Prabowo Subianto.
Mr Joko was mobbed by farmers while campaigning in West Java last week and Mr Prabowo has seen similar support from them.
Both have called for a dedicated bank for farmers and fishermen to get access to credit, and made stops in rural farm areas to explain how they would improve residents' lives.
In Indonesia, about 30 million people - or one in every six voters - are farmers.
They are a key bloc for both presidential candidates at a time when many who earn their living from agriculture feel their incomes have not kept pace with the country's recent economic growth of 6 per cent a year.
Both candidates are going all out to court farmers simply because of their large numbers, said Dr Harbrinderjit Singh Dillon, an expert in issues related to agriculture and farmers.
"Prabowo has the political machinery because he is head of a major farmers' organisation for a long time," he told The Straits Times. "But at the same time, one cannot underestimate the importance of Joko Widodo's profile as 'one of us', which might make farmers feel more at home," he said.
Farmers and agricultural groups across the country are split over who to back in the July 9 presidential election.
Several major farming groups feel Mr Joko can push agricultural reform and resolve land disputes. Mr Prabowo is chairman of the Association of Indonesian Farmers (HKTI), a major farming group.
Mr Joko, commonly known as Jokowi, has promised to ensure 1.4 billion rupiah (S$154,000) is distributed to all the villages, and wants to allocate 1.1 million ha of land every year to help more farmers own plots of land. He also said he would give them better seeds to boost crop yields for staples like soya bean and raise productivity for every hectare.
Mr Prabowo, meanwhile, has pledged 1 billion rupiah for the villages, and plans to rehabilitate deforested land to create millions of new farming jobs, as well as ensure that every farmer owns a small plot of land.
Last month, the Indonesian Survey Circle found in a poll that Mr Joko and his running mate Jusuf Kalla are more popular among farmers, with 37.9 per cent saying they would vote for the pair, compared with 18.6 per cent saying they would vote for Mr Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa. The remaining 53 per cent were undecided.
Several farmers said they feel Mr Joko would work harder for them. They cite his track record in helping the poor when he served as mayor of Solo and Jakarta, and his humble background - his father was a carpenter in Central Java.
"Jokowi is honest, down-to- earth, close to the grassroots," Mr Muhammad Anwar, 34, leader of a local farmers association in Garut, West Java, told The Straits Times. "We trust he will help resolve the thousands of cases of land disputes that have marginalised the farmers."
Occasional land disputes against plantation companies are a key concern for farmers, who feel local government officials and the military tend to side with the companies, and even resort to heavy-handed measures to relocate local communities.
On the other hand, the deputy chairman of another group of farmers and fishermen, Kontak Tani Nelayan Andalan or KTNA, Mr Lukman Zakariya, said farmers and fishermen should support Mr Prabowo as he has been like a father to farmers and fishermen.
But Mr Anwar, who grows vegetables, cassava and corn, said many farmers feel the HKTI does not really fight for their interests.
"If they are farmers, how come they are so rich?" he said, referring to Mr Prabowo and other senior leaders in the HKTI.
Various farmer groups have declared their support for both candidates but Professor Hamdi Muluk, who teaches political psychology at the University of Indonesia, said the grassroots may not always follow their leaders in who they vote for.
"The candidates that win the ordinary people's hearts are the ones that will get most of the votes," he said.
This article was first published on June 17, 2014.
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