JAKARTA: Indonesians vote on Wednesday in parliamentary elections expected to set popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, a fresh face in a country dominated by an ageing elite from the Suharto era, on course to become president in July.
Known universally by his nickname of “Jokowi,” 52-year-old Widodo has been a political phenomenon since he became the capital’s leader in 2012, and has topped presidential opinion polls for months.
His common touch—he regularly visits Jakarta’s slums in his trademark checked shirt—has made him a hit with voters weary of the Suharto-era tycoons and ex-military figures who have long been the main political players in the world’s third-biggest democracy.
Polls predict Widodo’s main opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) will top the vote in the country’s fourth legislative elections since the end of dictator Suharto’s three-decade rule in 1998.
Incumbent to be punished
But voters are expected to punish the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, following a string of high-profile corruption scandals and criticism that his government has been ineffective in recent years.
The legislative elections set the stage for presidential polls on July 9. A party or coalition needs 20 percent of seats in the 560-seat lower house of parliament or 25 percent of the national vote to field a candidate.
While most parties fail to achieve this on their own and form coalitions, the PDI-P may get over the threshold after a recent boost in the polls following the party’s decision to nominate Widodo as its candidate for head of state.
“Jokowi is from a new generation of leaders in Indonesia. I hope he can bring change to Indonesia,” Andi Gani Nena Wea, head of national trade union confederation KSPSI, told Agence France-Presse at a recent rally in Jakarta.
But others are skeptical that a man who has only run the capital for just over a year and has never had a role in national politics is ready to take charge of Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
“At a symbolic level he would represent a breakthrough, but at a substantive level I highly doubt it,” said Professor Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesia expert from Northwes–tern University in the United States.
Widodo’s main rival for the presidency is seen as Prabowo Subianto, a former commander of the Indonesian army’s notorious special forces who has been accused of human rights abuses. He lags far behind the governor in the polls.
Whoever replaces Yudhoyono—due to step down after 10 years in power—will inherit tremendous challenges, with growth in Southeast Asia’s top economy slowing, religious intolerance on the rise, and corruption endemic.
Preparing for the elections has been a huge logistical challenge, requiring authorities to transport ballot boxes to mountain-top villages, remote islands, and deep into jungles.
While the main focus is on the election at the national level, Indonesians will also be voting for lawmakers in provincial and district legislatures on the same day.
Some 186 million voters are eligible, and around 230,000 candidates are competing nation–wide for about 20,000 seats.
The polls are expected to be largely peaceful—although there are fears of violence in western Aceh province, where a long-running separatist insurgency only ended in 2005, following an upsurge in politically-linked attacks in recent weeks.
The three weeks of campaigning leading up to the vote have been raucous, with tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters packing out stadiums, and the crowded main island of Java has been the most important battleground.
Money and entertainment
But there has been little discussion of policy, with campaigns focused on the main personalities and parties resorting to time-honored Indonesian campaigning tech–niques—handing out money and putting on entertainment.
The 12 parties running nation–wide fall broadly into two camps, “secular nationalist”—such as the PDI-P and the Democrats—and Islamic.
However, the five Islamic parties—competing in the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population—are heading for their worst ever showing, with most people no longer voting principally on religious grounds.
Recent polls show the PDI-P having extended its lead since Widodo was picked as the party’s presidential candidate on March 14, although not everyone put it over the 25 percent threshold.
Golkar, the former political vehicle of Suharto, is likely to remain the second-biggest party, and Subianto’s Gerindra is expected to come third, with Yudhoyono’s party in fourth.
Unofficial tallies carried out by private pollsters, known as “quick counts,” are released several hours after polls close at 1 p.m. and are normally accurate. Official results are not expected until early May.