JAKARTA — After the most polarizing campaign in Indonesia’s history, millions of people voted to elect a new president Wednesday in a race too tight to predict, hoping for change that will fight corruption and poverty.
The world’s third-largest democracy is divided over two very different choices: Joko Widodo, a one-time furniture maker and Prabowo Subianto, a wealthy ex-army general with close links to former dictator Suharto.
Just a couple of months ago, the election was considered firmly in favor of Widodo, who rose from humble beginnings to become the governor of Jakarta with a squeaky-clean political record.
But a late surge by Subianto has vastly improved his chances after he wooed legions of supporters with calls for nationalism despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses during his military career and his connection with Suharto — his former father-in-law.
Widodo’s appeal is that he is seen as a man of the people who wants to advance democratic reforms even though he lacks experience in national politics, and represents a break from the past as the first candidate in direct elections with no connection to the 1966-1998 Suharto-era and its excesses.
When the polls opened Wednesday morning to about 190 million people, analysts predicted that undecided voters would determine the winner. The polls closed early in the afternoon, and preliminary quick count results were expected later in the day, but most were showing Jokowi with a slight early lead. Extra police and military forces were added in case violence erupts. High voter turnout was expected following campaigning that has energized people across the country.
“Unlike previous presidential elections, this time I’m so excited to participate because Indonesia needs a change,” said Widodo supporter Imam Arifin, who went to school with President Barack Obama when he lived in the country as a child. “I believe a candidate without a past dark track record can bring a better future to Indonesia.”
Both candidates were mobbed by throngs of journalists and supporters as they made their way to polling stations. Widodo enjoyed the moment, while Subianto appeared optimistic and said he would immediately announce his cabinet once installed as the new president.
“There is a political excitement. We can see how people are showing up to vote full of joy,” Widodo said, as he voted in central Jakarta accompanied by his wife. “Today, the future of this nation for the next five years will be determined.”
The two candidates are vastly different in their policies and styles. Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, is a soft-spoken man who likes to wear sneakers and casual plaid shirts, listen to heavy metal music and make impromptu visits to the slums.
Subianto, 62, is known for his thundering campaign speeches, a penchant for luxury cars and having trotted up to one rally on an expensive horse. He has the support of the most hard-line Islamic parties and has sparked concern among foreign investors worried about protectionism and a possible return to more authoritative policies.
“Many Indonesian Muslims prefer Prabowo’s strong and dynamic character, which can stand up in facing the foreign policies of neighboring countries and the U.S.,” said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesia Institute of Science. “Other people are responding positively to Jokowi’s caring and earthy traits.”
Smear tactics have surfaced in both camps. But Widodo, 53, has blamed his fall in opinion polls from a lead of more than 12 percentage points in May to just around 3.5 points on character assaults that accused him, among other things, of not being a follower of Islam. He has denounced the charges as lies, but says it’s hard to undo the damage it caused in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
At the same time, Subianto’s campaign has been more effective and better financed. He also enjoyed the support of two of the country’s largest television stations.
“I think these black campaigns were effective enough to convince communities,” said Hamdi Muluk, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia. “And that has directly ruined Widodo’s image.”
But he added that Subianto’s past, including ordering the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists prior to Suharto’s fall in 1998, have not gone unnoticed and some voters fear a return to the brutal dictator’s New Order regime. Details about the abductions surfaced recently after the official findings of an army investigative panel were leaked.
“Considering the role models and figures behind Widodo’s team, I believe many new voters tend to support Jokowi,” Muluk said. “A return to the New Order is not popular among youngsters or new voters. They are interested more in change.”
The race is the country’s third direct presidential election, and has played out with fury in the social media crazed country of about 240 million people. There has been a frenzy of “unfriending” on Facebook pages belonging to users who support different camps.
Subianto, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been gaining allies. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party, which said it was neutral earlier in the campaign, openly endorsed Subianto just two weeks before the election. Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term after 10 years in office. After voting Wednesday, he called on both sides to respect the results.
Subianto’s vows of tough leadership and promises that “Indonesia will become an Asian tiger once again” have also gained footing with some voters fed up with Yudhoyono, who has been criticized for being ineffective and weak on some issues, including those involving neighbors Australia and Malaysia. The president’s party has also been plagued by a string of recent high-profile corruption scandals.
Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.