Both candidates claimed victory Wednesday in Indonesia’s presidential election, the tightest race since the former Southeast Asian dictatorship made the transition to democratic politics less than two decades ago.
Joko Widodo, the popular chief executive of the capital city, Jakarta, said he had won based on samples of votes being counted at 480,000 polling stations nationwide that gave him a lead of between 4 and 6 percentage points. The so-called quick counts have accurately forecast results in the last several national elections.
But Widodo’s rival, Prabowo Subianto, a former head of Indonesia’s special forces, refused to concede defeat. An hour after Widodo delivered a victory speech – at the plaza where the former Dutch possession declared independence in 1945 – Subianto told supporters that “our team has won in many provinces and many areas.”
With official results not due until next month, the world’s fourth most populous nation was poised for several more weeks of tension after a gritty campaign that was marred in its final weeks by ferocious smears against Widodo that played on Indonesia’s religious and political sensitivities.
The claims against Widodo, better known by the nickname Jokowi, falsely accused him of being a closet Christian with Chinese roots, damaging his standing among Indonesia’s overwhelmingly Muslim population. The smears likely contributed to a dramatic drop in his pre-election poll numbers, which went from a 30-point advantage over Subianto to the two being in a dead heat.
Sixteen years after the fall of dictator Suharto amid economic chaos in 1998, analysts say Indonesia has become one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies. This election was the first in which the incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was term-limited, and the two-man race was a contest of two starkly different candidates.
Subianto, usually known as Prabowo, was a general in Suharto’s government and has a brusque and impatient demeanor, with a rousing stage presence. His boisterous rallies and slick online campaign were a sharp contrast with Widodo’s self-effacing, man-of-the-people style and sometimes chaotic public events.
Widodo ran on his record as mayor of Solo, his hometown in east Java, and more recently as governor of Jakarta, a traffic-clogged metropolis of 20 million people. His modest style and reputation for probity endeared him to Indonesia’s poor and working class.
On Wednesday evening, as his SUV inched along a thronged pathway outside where he had just held a news conference, Widodo shook hands with supporters who pressed against the car windows chanting “Jokowi, Jokowi!”
“I am happy, for we have a new leader who is man of the people, a humble man,” said 28-year-old Jay Jae, wearing a baseball cap stitched with Jokowi insignia, who stretched an arm toward the half-open backseat window.
Widodo had just made an appearance at the home of a prominent supporter, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of post-independence Indonesia’s first leader. Her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, won just under 20% of seats in April legislative elections, a disappointing result that showed the limits of Widodo’s popularity.
In the ensuing months, Subianto whittled away at Widodo’s support, transforming what seemed a foregone conclusion into a cliffhanger.
Aziza Nadia Razianti, a student who voted Wednesday, said she favored Subianto because “he is a very certain person, to the point, and he’s a leader.”
Hours later, Subianto exhorted his supporters to calmly await the announcement of official results, saying of his rival, “If there is anyone who would like to claim [victory] please go ahead. However, there is no legal basis for these claims.”
Roughneen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.
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