Indonesia faces big challenges after cliffhanger polls

 Indonesia faces big challenges after cliffhanger polls

Today, as up to 190 million Indonesians elect their next president, the choice before them could not be more stark or the outcome more uncertain.

A wafer-thin 2.7 percentage points separate Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and his rival, Mr Prabowo Subianto, according to the last survey released by pollster Saiful Mujani yesterday.

The battle has been a bruising one, pitting Mr Joko, who rose to prominence on his record of good governance, consultation and transparency, against Mr Prabowo, a former general whose promise of firm, decisive leadership held enough appeal to whittle down his rival's once commanding lead to a hair's breadth.

The Saiful Mujani poll - done from June 30 to July 3 - showed Mr Joko and his running mate Jusuf Kalla getting 47.6 per cent of votes against Mr Prabowo and running mate Hatta Rajasa's 44.9 per cent, with 7.5 per cent of voters still undecided or declining to answer. The cliffhanger outcome raises concern for several reasons.

There is the fear that after a bitter campaign marred by reports of mud-slinging, attempted vote-buying and intimidation by officials, there could be outbreaks of violence from supporters of the defeated candidate in this high-stakes race.

Even if trouble is averted by a stepped-up security presence, whoever is the next president will face the immediate task of having to unite a sharply divided electorate, a critical one given the other challenges looming ahead.

Much is at stake as growth in South-east Asia's largest economy has been slowing and investors are looking to the new leader to maintain the political stability of the Yudhoyono years, but with a greater zest for reform.

Under the outgoing President, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia has played an active foreign policy role that has seen Jakarta seeking to ease regional tensions, whether over maritime disputes in the South China Sea or within ASEAN.

Like it or not, his successor will have to master these ropes fairly quickly, given Indonesia's size and strategic position.

As veteran political scientist and former defence minister Juwono Sudarsono said in a recent interview with Indonesian current affairs journal Strategic Review, "the greatest defence challenge is to constantly rebalance the US, Japan and China so that great-power rivalries will not lead to disruptions or outright armed conflict among them, or among regional countries wishing to lead South-east Asia".

But the new president will likely focus largely on domestic issues, at least for his first few years.

Said Professor Juwono: "The greatest challenges we face in Indonesia remain domestic - chronic inequality between the centre and periphery, political and economic corruption at all levels, and poverty, particularly comparing western and eastern Indonesia."

The new president will, thankfully, have a three-month learning period as Dr Yudhoyono's term in office ends on Oct 20.

Over the past month, both Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo have given a glimpse of the reforms they intend to introduce.

Mr Joko places greater emphasis on fighting corruption and poverty and improving education and health so that Indonesians will be better equipped to get ahead in life.

Mr Prabowo has placed greater focus on building the necessary infrastructure to get the economy going and pushing ahead with the big development plans that stalled under the outgoing administration.

Their priorities may differ, but both will need to marshal enough support for their plans from a 10-party Parliament that may or may not cooperate.

Among the things economists say the next president needs badly to attend to is the hugely bloated fuel subsidy bill that sucks up funds that could otherwise have gone to health, education or infrastructure.

But subsidy cuts are hugely unpopular - and a key test of the mettle of the successor. As Dr Yudhoyono found out, the battle of governing will prove much tougher than the month-long election campaign.

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