The two candidates for this year’s presidential election could not be more different in terms of their personal characters. One is projecting himself as a firm if not abrasive and very confident candidate, and close friends say he can get emotional. The other is softspoken, calm, and the reason why he is popular is that he is perceived as somewhat humble.
More than anything else, personality, or the characters of the candidates, will be the main factor that decides the outcome of Indonesia’s presidential race on July 9.
Voters in Indonesia have a real choice to make: between Prabowo Subianto and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, or between the contrasting characters that they have carved for themselves on their way to clinching the presidential nominations.
People will vote for Prabowo if decisiveness and being firm are the qualities they look for in a leader. They will go with Jokowi if they think honesty and humility are more important. One represents the culture of a tough military commander, and the other the culture of ordinary, rather than aristocratic, Javanese people.
The background, education, track records in government (neither has much to speak of anyway), the vision for Indonesia and electoral platform, and the communication skills of the candidates, may be important factors, but they will be relegated to the background.
Even less important in the eyes of voters are the coalitions of political parties that both men have assembled to win the nomination. People will not necessarily vote according to party lines. That much is clear from the 2004 and 2009 elections.
The choice of vice-presidential candidates, the subject of contention and negotiations these past few days, is really a sideshow. Hatta Rajasa and Jusuf Kalla, the running mates of Prabowo and Jokowi, respectively, may be competent politicians and administrators, but they will have little impact on how voters decide.
Many voters will even overlook the baggage of the past that candidates may carry. Prabowo has been haunted by claims about his human rights track record. Jakarta’s unresolved problems, like flooding and traffic congestion, have been used against Jokowi’s presidential bid.
The real battle in the next few weeks before July 9 will be about character — a battle between Mr. Decisive and Mr. Humble. A third candidate, which was still a possibility before registration closed on Tuesday, would likely have produced a Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant.
But then, what else is new? In Indonesia, at least based on the last two presidential elections, it has always been about personal characters, at least as far as most voters are concerned.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections in 2004 primarily because he managed to carve a reputation as Mr. Clean or Mr. Integrity, even as his new Democratic Party won only 7 percent of the popular vote. He won the second time in 2009, because he managed to keep his reputation intact as the person voters could trust more than the other two candidates, Megawati Soekarnoputri and Kalla.
But in the last five years, Yudhoyono may have betrayed that trust as he is increasingly being perceived as someone who is hesitant in making important decisions and, with all the corruption going on in his own inner circle, untrustworthy and even arrogant.
The reason why Prabowo and Jokowi have become the leading contenders in the presidential race in the past two years is precisely because both have projected themselves as the antithesis to Yudhoyono’s perceived character flaws.
Prabowo had been the frontrunner candidate throughout 2012 as surveys showed that many voters craved the decisiveness and firmness that they saw missing in Yudhoyono’s leadership. When Jokowi entered the scene as presidential material only months after winning the Jakarta gubernatorial election in October 2012, many voters said they would go for the honesty and humility that they saw in him.
For now, most surveys say this has become an election for Jokowi to lose.
Unsurprisingly, we are seeing negative campaigns now being waged against one another as the presidential election campaign intensifies. If this is going to be a battle about character, then there is no better way of trying to outdo a competitor than through the tactic of character assassination, so the thinking goes.
But this could not be more wrong. Voters will never forgive candidates who engage in groundless and unsubstantiated slander. A lot of these negative campaigns will backfire.
Voters will get a closer look at personality and character when these two candidates face off in a series of presidential debates organized by the General Elections Commission (KPU).
In the presidential debates of the 2004 and 2009 campaigns, in which Yudhoyono bested all the other candidates, we learned that it was not what they say in the debates that matters most. It is how they say it. In political communication, delivery is more important than substance.
As in past national and local elections, many skeptical voters will decide at the last minute and the debates could be a telling factor if they are going to vote at all, and how they are going to vote.
So who will the voters go for in July? Let the man with the best personal character win.
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