Islam, Investing, and Indonesia: Why the World Is Watching July 9 Presidential Election

As the third-largest democracy in the world and home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia presents a fascinating and very significant political scenario. The Financial Times recently noted, “Indonesia is often singled out by Western leaders such as President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron as an example that Islam, democracy, and economic development can flourish together.”

By John Gizzi | June 30, 2014

Joko “Jokowi” WidodoPrabowo Subianto

Although the names of its two finalist candidates for president are unknown to most of the world, Indonesia’s presidential election July 9 is attracting attention worldwide.

The race is down to two intriguing candidates: Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, governor of the capital city of Jakarta, and often dubbed the “Indonesian Obama,” and Prabowo Subianto, retired special forces general who is the former son-in-law of Indonesia’s longtime (1966-98) authoritarian ruler Suharto.

But the iconic personality of its candidates notwithstanding, the race for president of Indonesia is just capturing the world’s attention for more important reasons.

As the third-largest democracy in the world and home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia presents a fascinating and very significant political scenario. The Financial Times recently noted, “Indonesia is often singled out by Western leaders such as President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron as an example that Islam, democracy, and economic development can flourish together.”

The eventual successor to outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who has completed the two five-year terms permitted by the constitution) will be watched carefully by the international business community. A top exporter of coal, palm oil, and rubber, Indonesia is a member of the G-20 (twenty largest economies), and player on the world’s economic stage.

Indonesia’s relationship with China will be watched closely in the next few years. Already Indonesia is one of the top exporters of coal to China. As China continues to expand its role as an economic power in Asia, its trade and commerce with Indonesia are likely to grow. So will the hand of U.S. investors, clearly nervous about China’s growing sphere of influence in Southeast Asia.

But Indonesia is also a populous nation that has only known democracy for the last sixteen years, since the overthrow of Suharto. Corruption is widespread at all levels of government and cynicism about politicians is rampant among the rising population of younger Indonesians.

This is highly significant: half the population of Indonesia is under 30 and when the nation goes to the polls July 9, there will be 29 million voters eligible to vote for the first time, or 17% of the entire electorate.

There is little wonder why this growth in young Indonesia is frequently dubbed “a demographic time bomb.” Failure by the next president to deliver essential services and opportunity for employment and careers for this ever-growing younger set could spell disaster for Indonesia.

Another potential “time bomb” is Indonesia’s long-standing history with terrorism. With separatist movements operating—the Freitillin (for East Timorese independence) and the Jemaah Islamiyah Islamist group (affiliated with al-Qaeda), modern terrorism has focused on Western tourists and police officers.

In listing Indonesia as one of several “Terrorism Havens” worldwide, a 2005 study by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded: “While Indonesia is known as a secular, tolerant society that practices a moderate form of Islam, radical Islamists have gained momentum. U.S. officials and terrorism experts worry about al-Qaeda using Indonesia as a base for a Southeast Asian front in its campaign against “infidels,” Jews, and the United States.”

Nine years later, is Indonesia still a “terrorist haven?” Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), chairman of the House Republican Task Force on Terrorism, says “yes,” emphatically.

“Indonesia has a history of terrorist uprisings, particularly those related to separatist movements,” Pittenger said recently. “The elections in Indonesia are important because America must continue to engage governments who are committed to fighting terrorism and protecting human rights. We need strong alliances throughout the world to combat Islamic extremists and deter the expansion of global terrorism.”

The “Indonesian Obama”

In the country where the young Barack Obama lived with his mother and Indonesian step-father from 1967-71, it is no surprise to see a leading candidate for the Indonesian presidency likened to the American president.

As the Economist, Financial Times, and other news outlets covering the race note, Joko Widodo has had a quicksilver political journey not unlike that of Obama from state senator to U.S. Senator to President in five years. Elected mayor of the Central Java city of Solo in 2005, furniture exporter Widodo won the governorship of Jakarta in 2012.

Like Obama, he is considered a master of campaigning through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Blogspot and Xanga.

Nominated in March by the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), the 53-year-old known by the nickname “Jokowi” is running on a platform of clean government and streamlining infrastructure and education. If elected in Indonesia’s third direct election for president, Widodo will be the first president of his country who is neither from the elite political class nor a former general.

“Just as Obama was lauded for being a ‘fresh and exciting voice in American politics,’ wrote Stanley Weiss, past chairman of Business Executives for National Security, “Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is praised as an “open and approachable” public official who “represents a clear break” from “the traditional power centers of Indonesian politics.” (Not exactly. Sources close to Wikodo say he secured his party’s nomination in part by cultivating its national chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri, herself a former president and daughter of Indonesia’s legendary first president Sukarno.)

As governor of a metropolis of 12 million, Widodo has overseen an administration that by all accounts has been free of corruption and cronyism. Emphasizing his credentials as a reformer, the governor vows to deal with his country’s failing infrastructure and streamline its education and health care systems. To international investors, he emphasizes his background as successful merchant exporting furniture for his family-owned business and his stint as president of the Solo Furniture Makers’ Association.

Declaring that “I have an international brain,” Widodo assured foreign investors he supports market competition.

Beyond that, however, the “everyman candidate” offers few specifics on how he will achieve these goals. So new is he to the governorship of Jakarta that there is a growing sense that he is moving too quickly and reaching too high. As Stanley Weiss put it, “While his twelve months as Governor of Jakarta are off to a promising start, flooding and traffic are as bad as they’ve always been, in part because he hasn’t had time to see his ideas through……maybe Jokowi should wait until he can prove that he’s able to solve the problems of a city of 10 million before he claims he can solve the problems of a country of 250 million.”

Coupled with Widodo’s lackluster performance in televised debate, this sense that he is not ready for primetime has fueled the candidacy of an opponent whose name and record are well-known—warts and all.

The “Strongman”

At 62, retired General Prabowo Subianto looks and acts the part of the man who knows what he wants and gets it done. He favors the self-characterization “strongman” and has the credentials to back it up: career soldier, past commander of the feared colossal special forces, formerly married to the daughter of the powerful Suharto.

Where opponent Widodo wears red-and-blue checkered shirts and trousers, Prabowo favors custom-tailored suits, monogrammed shirts, and silk ties. His trademark is an ever-present thermos in the shape of an artillery shell, from which he drinks his favorite iced-coffee.

Denied nomination for president in 2004 by the Golkar party that was long the political vehicle of Suharto, Probowo launched the new Gerindra (Great Indonesia Political Movement) Party four years later. At 62, he vows to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure and boost investment. A descendant of the sultans of Mataram who ruled Indonesia before the Dutch made it a colony, Probowo today owns a plantation and pulp mill and campaigns in a private jet and helicopter.

If Widodo is “Indonesia’s Obama,” Probowo is its version of India’s Prime Minister Modi or Egypt’s general-turned-President Sisi—for both of whom the press frequently affixes the adjective “strongman” to their titles.

Probowo’s own choice for an admired political figure is Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who also came from a wealthy family and was overthrown in a 2006 coup for alleged abuse of power.

It is on this subject—abuse of power—that Probowo finds himself playing defense. Because the retired general has long been accused of human rights abuses that he ordered against ethnic Chinese when they protested Suharto’s heavy-handed rule in 1998, Probowo is denied a visa to the United States.

“So he’s just like India’s Modi and a lot of other international politicians,” Probowo’s billionaire industrialist brother Hashim told this reporter during a visit to the U.S. earlier this year, “These are things that my brother has been accused of and that have never been substantiated. But, because of some American activists and NGO’s [Non-Governmental Organizations], he’s denied a visa by the State Department.

“And I’m sure they will lift it on the day he is elected president.” (Upon winning election as prime minister of India, Modi was invited to the U.S. and a State Department spokesman indicated he could travel to the U.S. under the A-1 visa reserved for heads of government; the U.S. government has signaled it will work with either candidate who becomes president of Indonesia.)

Hashim also reminded this reporter that “our family helped Widodo become governor of Jakarta and contributed to his campaign”—almost as if to say “Some gratitude!” (Widodo did name Hashim to a local board overseeing the zoo in Jakarta.)

Down to the Wire

When all of the byzantine maneuvering ended in April and the race winnowed down to two candidates, pundits and pols were a calling Widodo a sure winner. One poll had him leading Probowo by 30 percentage points among likely voters. But doubts about his issue stands and hard-charging campaigning by Probowo have made the contest a true horserace.

According to the latest Indonesian Survey Institute poll, Widodo now holds a slim lead over his soldier-foe of 43% to 39%, with 18% undecided. All signs point to Indonesia’s third direct election for president going down to the wire.

Whoever becomes president, it is unlikely to change the close ties Jakarta has with Washington. Obama’s personal ties to Indonesia have enhanced that relationship and, like Kenya, Hawaii, and Illinois, the archipelago nation claims him as a son.

What is to be watched closely is how a Widodo or a Probowo deals with such problems of investment, Islam, and infrastructure—and given the importance of Indonesia as an international players in the 21st century, the performance of its next president on those issues are sure to attract an audience worldwide.

Rep. Pittenger put it another way: “Our world is interconnected like never before. We can no longer afford to ignore the changing political climate in faraway countries.”

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.