JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s presidential election on Wednesday could be the last chance for old style politicians to lead what is one of the world’s biggest democracies, and one of its youngest.
Since 1998, when Indonesia finally shrugged off decades of autocratic rule, the national leadership has remained dominated by old faces and old practices, including patronage and rampant corruption. Until now, that is.
On July 9, ex-general Prabowo Subianto will battle for the presidency against Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has arrived on the national stage through local politics and is the first presidential candidate not to rely on the traditions that have produced past leaders.
“(Prabowo’s bid) is really the last gasp of the old guard,” said one of Indonesia’s most senior bankers, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Jokowi, the governor of Jakarta, was born in poverty and muscled into key positions with the promise of a leader who gets things done, cuts through red tape and is clean. For decades, officials have viewed bribes as their chief source of income and have helped turn Indonesia into one of the world’s most corrupt societies.
The public response to the new group of politicians has been remarkable and is changing the face of the country’s politics. With about a third of Indonesia’s 190 million voters under 30, entrenched political parties are being forced to embrace the change to remain in power.
Jokowi is considered the most popular politician in Indonesia and is the frontrunner heading into Wednesday’s election. In March, ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri and head of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), had no choice but to put aside her own ambitions to be back in the palace and nominated Jokowi for the post instead.
Earlier this year, Tri Rismaharini, the popular mayor of the city of Surabaya, found herself at odds with the PDI-P central command over who she should appoint as her deputy.
Hundreds of thousands of supporters rallied in Rismaharini’s favor on social media, slamming the party for trying to force her hand. The party had to capitulate and even fly in Megawati to smooth things over.
“Risma is the perfect example of an activist mayor defying party bosses who were trying to bully her,” said one party insider who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “That doesn’t happen often here. There was a time when she would have been fired for going against them.”
Indonesia’s three biggest cities - Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung - are now led by elected officials who mark a break with political traditions.
When architect Ridwan Kamil ran for mayor of Bandung in 2013, he ignored the main political parties that have long had a stranglehold on elections. Instead, he ran as an independent and turned for help to his half a million Twitter followers.
He won. Indonesia’s mainstream political parties chased after him and his ability to win votes, and he joined Gerindra, the party of the other presidential candidate, Prabowo.
“Indonesian democracy has shifted from being dominated by political parties to being personality-dominated but in a good way,” Kamil told Reuters. “You see more and more people starting to vote for track records instead of just accepting what parties tell them.”
The changes are opening up opportunities for would-be leaders in the lower ranks of regional government.
Basuki Tjahja Purnama or Ahok served in the local government of the tiny island province of Bankga-Belitung for 10 years before recently taking over from Jokowi as acting governor of Jakarta, the first ethnic Chinese to do so.
“If you are clean, you are fair...people will vote for you,” Ahok told Reuters in an interview in April. “That’s why I started from the very low position of local parliament. Because I needed to take steps to show there is a cheaper and different way to get political power.”
While times are changing, the old guard politicians in charge of the main parties, especially PDI-P and Golkar, the two largest, remain powerful, analysts say.
“The iron law of the oligarchs who run these political parties...is still strong. They are feudal parties in which the chairman holds all the power,” said Firman Noor, political analyst at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
But he added: “In the very near future, and this is already happening, parties will have to pay much more attention to these fresh leaders because they are popular.”
Prabowo is backed by Golkar and a coalition of five other parties. Once married to a daughter of former iron ruler Suharto, Prabowo was a favored member of his inner circle at the time.
Now 62, it is his third attempt to become president.
Nevertheless, his Gerindra party is also grooming a younger generation of leaders.
“We need more fresh blood in our politics,” Fadli Zon, vice secretary general of Gerindra told Reuters.
“Politics is very dirty, lots of corruption. But we tell (young people) if you just stay away from politics, then this political arena will be filled with people with personal interests instead of national interests.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Thatcher, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan