JAKARTA – Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo is expected to be declared the winner of Indonesia’s disputed presidential election this week, but his rival, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, is likely to mount a legal challenge that will prolong the political deadlock.
Both candidates declared victory in the July 9 poll after a bitterly fought campaign in the world’s third-biggest democracy. However, reliable pollsters predict Widodo will win by several points when the lengthy vote-counting process is completed.
The election was the tightest and most divisive in Indonesia since the downfall of dictator Suharto in 1998, and has emerged as the biggest test yet for the young democracy.
“We’ve had a very polarized election, one which is very close, which is something that we have not really had before,” said veteran Indonesia analyst Kevin Evans.
Known by his nickname, “Jokowi,” the Jakarta governor is the first serious presidential contender in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation without links to the autocratic past and is from a new breed of up-and-coming politicians.
In contrast, Prabowo was the head of the army’s special forces in the Suharto era, has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and used to be married to one of the dictator’s daughters.
The results are expected Tuesday after some 130 million ballots are counted by hand across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands stretching from mountainous Papua in the east to jungle-clad Sumatra in the west.
Tensions have escalated dramatically over the past two weeks as both sides accused each other of seeking to rig the outcome, and police will be out in force around the country when the final results are released.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has urged the candidates to keep their supporters off the streets amid fears of unrest, 16 years after thousands were killed when violence swept the country as three decades of authoritarian rule came to a chaotic end.
Investors in Southeast Asia’s top economy are hoping that Widodo, who is seen as a clean leader in one of the world’s most corrupt countries and is likely to enact much-needed reforms, will emerge as the winner.
Observers say there is still a small chance of Prabowo being declared the winner, although only if his team engages in widespread vote-rigging.
However, the ex-general insists that he is in the lead and that Widodo’s side, not his, is seeking to tamper with votes.
The election campaign was the dirtiest in Indonesia’s short democratic history, and saw Widodo’s once-huge lead dwindle to single digits after a flood of negative attacks.
However, on election day, pollsters with a track record of accurately predicting Indonesian election outcomes gave Widodo a lead of between 2 and 7 percentage points. Official results are expected to confirm his victory.
Several less well-known survey institutes called a win for Prabowo, but doubts have been raised about their results. Two of them were thrown out of the pollsters’ industry body last week for refusing to undergo an audit.
Even if Widodo is declared the winner, the presidential race is unlikely to be over, as Prabowo is almost certain to challenge the results in the Constitutional Court, claiming Widodo’s side engaged in vote-tampering.
The court has until late August to issue a ruling.
There are concerns about the institution’s impartiality after its former chief justice was jailed for life last month for corruption, although analysts believe the court will be at pains to appear clean following the scandal and is likely to side with Widodo.
Widodo won legions of fans with his down-to-earth approach as Jakarta governor, and was known for making impromptu tours of the capital’s teeming slums in casual clothes.
If elected, the 53-year-old is seen as likely to usher in a new style of leadership and consolidate democracy.
Prabowo, 62, won support by playing up his military background in a country where there is a yearning for a strong leader as disillusionment mounts over Indonesia’s chaotic democracy.
Whoever wins will be Indonesia’s second directly elected president.
Widodo, a former furniture exporter, shot to prominence when he was elected governor of Jakarta in 2012 following a successful stint as mayor of Solo, his hometown on the island of Java.
His hands-on-approach proved wildly popular with a public weary of corrupt, aloof politicians.
Despite his heavy workload, the father of three still took time out to indulge his love of heavy metal, and was occasionally spotted head-banging at concerts in Jakarta.
“This is something new for Indonesians — to have a leader who is also a grounded figure,” said Tobias Basuki, an analyst with the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Widodo completed a forestry program at an Indonesian university, started up his own successful furniture business, and then entered politics in 2005 as the mayor of Solo.
He is credited with regenerating the city during seven years in charge, moving slum dwellers into multistory apartment buildings with working toilets, and relocating hundreds of vendors clogging footpaths to a market.
During his time in charge in the capital, construction started on several new public transport projects aimed at easing chronic traffic jams. He also pushed a series of pro-poor policies, such as easier access to free health care.