Crossing rural-urban divide in Indonesia's presidential election

If Jakarta is on nervous tenterhooks over the July 9 presidential election, the so-called "battleground" provinces of vote-rich Central and East Java, which will really decide the outcome of the race, appear to be in the middle of a ceasefire.

On a road trip from Yogyakarta to Surabaya, which took my companion and me north through Demak and the coastal cities of Kudus, Tuban and Rembang, we were struck by just how much voters were taking the country's third direct presidential election in their stride.

It is also clear that while Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) candidate Joko Widodo enjoys widespread grassroots support, Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) rival Prabowo Subianto isn't allowing his rival to have everything his way. The polls reflect that.

But they don't explain the mix of factors that have made it a closer contest than anyone thought it would be, ranging from unspoken primordialism and lingering party loyalties to raw judgments about who will be the best leader.

While Mr Prabowo may have closed the gap impressively since April's legislative elections, it is still Mr Joko's race to lose.

Let's face it. In any other country, his 10 percentage point advantage in the polls would be huge, even insurmountable.

There is certainly no reason for his aides to panic. Even less so since the first presidential debate, in which a strangely restrained Mr Prabowo, fitted out in an unflattering white leisure jacket, missed a chance to land a telling blow on the less experienced Mr Joko.

Supporters of the former Jakarta governor make no secret of their adulation for a simple man who has captured the imagination of the so-called wong cilik, the small people.

Mr Prabowo's admirers are not nearly as vocal but they are certainly there.

On a similar pre-election road trip in 2009, we were surprised at the popularity of the controversial retired special forces general, even though he was on the losing side as running mate to PDI-P chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri.

No one in Jakarta wanted to believe it, convinced that his human rights record and his previous privileged position as former president Suharto's son-in-law would be enough to kill off any political ambitions he had.

They were wrong. Big time.

Now, we hear the words tegas (firm), kuat (strong) and keras (hard) over and over again from those who still think the no-nonsense Mr Prabowo is the leader for the job, even if he does have the unnerving capacity to scare some and inspire others.

Incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono didn't get a mention on our travels. For all the criticism heaped on him and his government for not showing enough resolve, rural voters seem generally content. Perhaps it is a result of low expectations. The issues that bother Jakarta residents, such as the manner and circumstances under which Mr Prabowo was cashiered from the military in 1998 - and even his current single status - just don't resonate in the rural villages either.

To many constituents, like Yogyakarta tour guide Tyarno, it is all very clear-cut - Mr Joko is a son of the soil, making him different from anyone before him. Mr Prabowo is a former member of the military elite, a throwback to a different era.

Only a few days earlier, Mr Joko had spent two hours closeted with influential Yogyakarta Sultan Hamengkubuwono X in his palace, a signal honour that left some observers wondering whether the 68-year-old sultan is quite as neutral as he says he is.


In neighbouring Solo, where Mr Joko launched his political career as city mayor, T-shirts bearing his portrait are everywhere, proclaiming him as the next president. Said one market vendor with a laugh: "Why have an election when he's going to win anyway?" Along the northern coast, east of the fishing port of Rembang, we ran into PDI-P volunteers hoisting a broad white sheet along the side of a road bridge, ready for voters to sign their names in support of Mr Joko and running mate Jusuf Kalla.

Strangely perhaps, it is the only sign of active electioneering we came across. But it is evidence of a new phenomenon - people contributing small amounts of money and time to the campaign, the first time in 15 years of democracy this has happened.

It is an encouraging development and in the television debate that evening in Jakarta, with the veteran Mr Kalla grinning at his elbow, a dark-suited Mr Joko declared: "I wasn't chosen because I'm the head of a party, but because of my prestasi (achievements)."

On a different level, Mr Prabowo could say the same thing. Returning from self-exile in Jordan, he and his brother, businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, built Gerindra from nothing into what is now Indonesia's third-biggest party. It has taken a lot of hard work.

In a roadside coffee shack, north of Lamongan, a middle-aged farmer said he would vote for Mr Prabowo, and added an interesting observation. "Indonesia has never had a successful civilian president," he said.

East of Kudus, shipbuilder Musli paused from his work on a broad-beamed ironwood fishing vessel to quietly declare his support for Mr Prabowo as well. He said he likes his military background, while Mr Joko is dismissed as an orang biasa, just an ordinary person.

No one seems to consider Central and East Java as battlegrounds. "There are no fanatics here," said a bare-chested fisherman who, unlike in the legislative polls, does not expect to be paid to vote in the presidential election.

In Jakarta, any effort at fair-mindedness goes unrecognised. Out here, constituents were anything if not sanguine. In one sense that is good. But it also shows how much they have to learn, and why it is policies and not personalities that should serve as the defining factor.

This article was first published on June 13, 2014.
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