Widodo Campaign Struggles as Indonesia Polls Narrow

Indonesia presidential front-runner Joko Widodo’s lead has shrunk by half in a month according to a recent opinion poll, as his well-funded opponent casts him as ill-suited for the top job three weeks ahead of the election.

Indonesians, who six months ago gave Jakarta governor Widodo an almost 40-point lead in opinion polls over the man who is now his sole rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, are beginning to doubt whether he’s equipped to lead the country. Prabowo, the former son-in-law of dictator Suharto who headed the special forces under the deposed leader, has closed the gap to 6 percentage points from 13 points a month earlier, according to a survey released June 15 by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia.

“What Prabowo did was to negatively define Jokowi before he could define himself: ‘He is a nice man, but devoid of policy substance,’” said Jakarta-based Douglas E. Ramage, country head for Indonesia at business advisory Bower Group Asia, referring to Widodo by his nickname. “They were able to put Jokowi on the defensive.”

Widodo’s man-of-the-people image that propelled him to the top job in the capital is proving less effective in the face of an organized Prabowo campaign that has cast its candidate as a strong leader and forged political alliances to deliver votes. The rupiah has weakened as the gap in the polls has shrunk, with investors concerned over the declining fortunes of Widodo, 52, who initially stoked confidence with his pro-business approach and focus on infrastructure as Jakarta governor.

The tightening race, which is the third direct election for president since Suharto’s fall in 1998, has caused unease among investors, Finance Minister Chatib Basri said in an interview yesterday at the finance ministry in Jakarta. “They want to know what will be the future,” he said. “The concern on the election will continue until we get the new president.”

Golkar Support

Aides to Widodo, less experienced than the Prabowo team that has fought a previous presidential race, have at times reinforced the message of their opponent. “A key characteristic of Prabowo is his firmness and that’s what we will highlight in Jokowi,” Anies Baswedan, a spokesman for Widodo, said at an election-related event in Jakarta on June 10.

Prabowo has made gains on the party front. While analysts predicted Widodo would win the support of Golkar, the country’s second-biggest party, the 62-year-old Prabowo was the one who last month linked up with Golkar and its chairman Aburizal Bakrie, who gave up his own presidential bid.

Prabowo has also won the support of pop icon Rhoma Irama, a singer known as ‘Indonesia’s Elvis.’ Rhoma, who was last year touted as a potential presidential candidate, is popular among part of the Muslim electorate.

Late Entrance

“It’s because Golkar has come to us,” Prabowo’s brother and senior economic adviser Hashim Djojohadikusumo said June 6 in Jakarta, referring to the narrowing in the polls. “This dangdut singer Rhoma Irama, he commands 5 percent in the polls,” he said, referring to a genre of Indonesian pop music.

Widodo’s late entrance to the race, after being nominated in March as the candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, has also hobbled his campaign as he rushed to formulate a policy platform and had to rely on volunteers. When the campaign published its policy manifesto, which was uploaded May 20 on the election commission website, it was 41 pages long and the PDI-P said it planned to upload a new version after the first one was criticized for errors.

By contrast, Prabowo has a similar campaign team to the one in 2009 when he ran for vice president, allowing him to spend more time on the campaign trail. His manifesto was also more accessible -- a nine-page document with easy-to-read bullet points.

Poor Upbringing

Half-hearted backing from some members of the PDI-P, who wanted party Chairwoman and former President Megawati Soekarnoputri to run for president, may also be hurting Widodo’s election drive, said Hamdi Muluk, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia in Depok, West Java, who specializes in political psychology. “Widodo understands that, so he relies on volunteers,” he said. “But the problem with having many volunteers is in coordinating them.”

On a mid-June campaign stop in the West Java capital of Bandung, Widodo was mobbed by supporters. People pushed forward to have their picture taken with him and shake his hand.

Later, he told a crowd of several hundred people gathered on a field in the drizzle about his poor upbringing. He pulled two cards from his pocket that provide access to health and education services, and which are part of a project he piloted in Jakarta. When he’s president, he said, all poor Indonesians will get access to free education and health.

‘Reached Saturation’

“I’m glad I can see him even though I didn’t get to shake his hand,” said Lilis Hasanah, 49, who along with her three friends waited for four hours to hear the Jakarta governor. “He’s honest, close to people, simple.”

Widodo’s personal story resonates among poorer voters, but it is wearing thin among other parts of the electorate, said Muluk.

“Jokowi’s image of being hard working and close to people has reached saturation point,” he said.

Airlangga Hartarto, a member of Golkar’s central executive council, said people wanted to hear less from Widodo on what he has achieved and more about his plans for the country.

“It’s because of leadership style -- people see Prabowo as having a leadership style, and they see Jokowi as having a managerial style,” he said yesterday in an interview.

Rupiah Decline

Widodo spokesman Baswedan said the campaign wasn’t concerned by polls showing Prabowo gaining support. He pointed to surveys with different margins and said that volunteers would help to bolster support for Widodo.

The value of the rupiah has declined as the race has tightened. The currency surged to a five-month high on March 17, three days after it was announced Widodo would run for president. The currency has fallen 5.6 percent over the past three months, the worst performer across emerging market currencies globally.

“The narrowing popularity gap is adding pressure to the rupiah exchange rate in addition to the weak economic fundamentals of the country,” said Akbar Syarief, a Jakarta-based fund manager at PT MNC Asset Management.

While the race has tightened, a steady performance from Jokowi in the first of five presidential debates on June 9 may help halt his slide. The Jakarta Composite index of shares jumped 1.3 percent on June 10, the most in almost four weeks, the day after the debate.

Articulate, Calm

The first debate was “extremely important,” said Ramage from the Bower Group. “Jokowi was able to show that he was articulate, substantive, calm, confident, and showed that he was ready for higher office.”

Some of Widodo’s backers are confident he will win handily. With the number of undecided voters having dwindled and the election only three weeks away, Prabowo won’t be able to catch Widodo, said Lin Che Wei, the founder of Independent Research and Advisory Indonesia, who is advising Widodo on economic matters.

“Jokowi will win by a comfortable margin,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be tight.”

Widodo still has work to do before the July 9 election, said Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant. He needs to deliver a message that clearly distinguishes him from Prabowo, in simple language, he said.

“He needs to be repetitive,” Rowland said. “Jokowi needs to step up and start contrasting himself with Prabowo.”

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