Indonesia is at a crucial moment in its history. Stretching behind it are 16 years of a post-Suharto era that saw the country quit authoritarianism, cold-turkey style, and plunge headlong into democracy and decentralization. The last decade has been under outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will reach his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in October. On July 9, he will hand the reins to one of two candidates standing in the country's presidential election.

Will it be Prabowo Subianto, a hubristic ex-general once married to the daughter of Suharto, the authoritarian leader who was forced to resign in 1998? Or will it be Joko Widodo, known as "Jokowi," Jakarta's tireless, self-effacing governor? Both have the capacity to bend Indonesia's arc of history -- but each in a different direction. Indonesians will not merely be choosing between two very different leaders. They will be choosing between two very different futures.

In recent weeks, the battle lines between the candidates have solidified. Each has produced a vision and a mission statement. They have sparred in several televised debates -- with two more scheduled, on June 29 and July 5. The race appears to be heading for a tight finish. Jokowi's early lead in the polls has evaporated, and Prabowo appears to be slightly ahead, although the number of undecided voters remains large. 

Vikram Nehru
Nehru was a nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
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Prabowo's steady rise in popularity has been helped by his alliance with Golkar, the second-largest party in April's legislative elections, which brings him a strong nationwide network of political operatives. He can also count on the deep pockets of his billionaire brother and supporter, Hashim Djojohadikusumo. And he has an edge in media access, thanks to broad support from the business community, including several media tycoons, one of whom has exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup to soccer-mad Indonesians.

Study in contrasts   

The intensifying rivalry between the candidates has sharply defined their differences in style and personality. Both have tried to draw stark comparisons with incumbent President Yudhoyono, seen by many as indecisive and ineffective. Prabowo's strategy has been to portray himself as a dynamic leader capable of difficult decisions, even though he has no experience in government. The military was his only profession, and although his career was abruptly terminated by allegations of human rights abuses, many voters see his military background as proof of strong leadership in tough circumstances.

His military training is evident in his disciplined messaging on issues such as corruption and resource nationalism, themes to which he has returned at every opportunity. But he has been reticent in offering specifics on what policies he proposes to follow. His nine-page manifesto is long on slogans but short on detail, focusing on uncontroversial objectives such as a strong, equitable economy and a secure, sovereign, democracy.

Underlying Prabowo's campaign has been a steady drumbeat of nationalism evocative of Sukarno, Indonesia's authoritarian first president, who believed he personified the nation. While Prabowo has shown restraint in the presidential debates, his public rallies have been tirades against hidden enemies -- often thinly veiled references to foreigners -- who, he claims, are exploiting poor Indonesians and sucking resources from the country. In the best tradition of Sukarno, he offers himself as both protector and savior of the poor.

But today's Indonesia is a different country from the newly independent state of 1949. It is a vibrant democracy in which parliament wields as much power as the president, perhaps more. Indeed, Yudhoyono's ineffectiveness, especially in his second term, was in part caused by his inability to sway parliament, including members of his own coalition, on issues central to his economic and social programs.

The next president will find that personal charisma will matter for naught unless parliament is backing him. The results of the April parliamentary election have only increased this challenge; 10 political parties met the threshold test to be represented in parliament, and the most successful was Jokowi's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, which even then won less than 20% of the seats.

Prabowo does not give the impression that he will have enough patience to negotiate and compromise with a fragmented parliament on legislative matters. Hatta Rajasa, his vice-presidential running mate, is unlikely to help much; as a minister in Yudhoyono's second administration, he was not successful in building bridges with parliament.

Clash of styles

In any case, Indonesia's newly elected parliament will not be willing to see its powers circumscribed by an authoritarian president. The contest between a Prabowo presidency and a fractious parliament will be a test of wills that can end in only one of two ways -- an emasculated presidency or an emasculated parliament. Neither would be good for Indonesia in the long run.

Jokowi's style could not be more different from Prabowo's. His inclusive and collaborative approach as mayor of the central Java city of Surakarta, often called Solo, and then as governor of Jakarta, led to dramatic improvements in the quality of government in both cities. His "walkabout" management approach and his concern for issues central to the poor -- especially access to health and education -- boosted his popularity to rock-star status.

In his first election as mayor of Solo, Jokowi won 37% of the votes; in his re-election five years later, he won 90%. His election as Jakarta governor was a significant victory against the incumbent governor, who had the backing of most large political parties.

Although in office for less than two years, Jokowi hit the ground running in Jakarta. He started two major infrastructure projects -- the mass rapid transit system and the monorail project -- which had been stalled for years amid bureaucratic bottlenecks. He introduced a health insurance scheme for the poor, modeled on his experience in Solo, and started other projects, such as those to control floods and ease traffic congestion. In a country where rapid growth over the last decade brought little material benefit to the poor, Jokowi showed Indonesians that government can be effective in delivering basic services, infrastructure and jobs.

Jokowi's track record in government shows a man of principle who practices what he preaches. He recruited talented people without concern for gender or religion. He was tough on corruption, rent-seeking and excessive bureaucracy. He acknowledged what he did not know and seemed unafraid to seek advice from those who did. His 42-page, nine-point presidential manifesto is, unlike Prabowo's, replete with details, reflecting some of the best ideas among Indonesia's top policy thinkers.

Protecting the poor and minorities is a common thread woven throughout the document. His emphasis on reforming the bureaucracy -- including the police and the judiciary -- and prioritizing anticorruption efforts in these departments reflects his own experience in local government. His vice-presidential choice of Jusuf Kalla, who was vice president in Yudhoyono's more active and successful first term, brings to his team a strong coalition-builder who will be able to forge strong links with parliament and ensure better synergy between the executive and the legislature.

While Prabowo and Jokowi could not differ more in style and temperament, their economic policy objectives overlap to some degree. Both have vowed to reduce the fuel subsidy bill, maintain the mineral export ban, accelerate infrastructure development, improve the quality of education, reduce foreign participation in the financial sector and strengthen national security.  

But they differ in key areas. Prabowo has ambitious plans for agriculture -- a "big push" to transform 16 million hectares of forest land into biofuel and food farms, and in the process create 40 million new jobs. However, this appears to ignore Indonesia's sorry history of transmigration, and the need to facilitate structural change away from agriculture and toward manufacturing and services. Jokowi, by contrast, intends to help farmers by focusing on expanding irrigation.

Prabowo is supportive of the role of the state and state enterprises, and his vice-presidential running mate is known to oppose privatization. Jokowi appears more focused on removing bureaucratic impediments to private investment and streamlining the regulatory system. Prabowo wants to revise Indonesia's contracts with foreign oil and mineral companies unilaterally. Jokowi wants to honor them.

Choosing Indonesia's destiny

Neither candidate is a blank canvas. Both are shaped by their past but offer contrasting views of the future. A key question, then, is the direction each would take Indonesia. A Prabowo presidency would likely build conglomerate and state power as in the Suharto era, but through state enterprises and trade and investment restrictions as in the Sukarno era. In addition, Prabowo's repeated emphasis on the vital importance of strong leadership is redolent of Suharto's centralized power structure. He has urged that Indonesia return to its original 1945 constitution, which would restore to the presidency the untrammeled power that Suharto enjoyed before his ouster in 1998. While that is unlikely to happen, it provides a glimpse of the inner impulses driving his ambition.

A Jokowi presidency would likely bend the arc in an altogether different direction. If his past is any indicator, his emphasis would be on delivering basic services to the poor, empowering local communities and local governments, and encouraging a pro-poor pattern of growth that supports market forces while recognizing the critical role of government.

Such an approach would reinforce the political trend toward deeper and more genuine democracy, more transparency and efficiency in government operations, and policies that prevent further concentration of market and political power in the hands of a few. His running mate is known for his pragmatism and would be invaluable in fashioning parliamentary coalitions supportive of presidential programs.

William Jennings Bryan, a noted American politician, once said: "Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice." Indonesian voters will make their choice known on July 9. And in so doing, they will be choosing their destiny.

This article was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.