Indonesia’s Presidential campaign has now kicked off in earnest and although the two candidates don’t have too many differences over the substance of their economic policies, they do differ markedly in character and personality. And its character that counts for a lot in Presidential races as Indonesian voters generally do not carefully review a candidate’s policy prescriptions or their stand on issues. To help them understand and frame the differences between Prabowo and Jokowi, many Indonesians (in particular the largest ethnic group, the Javanese) will turn to the thousand year old wayang (shadow puppet theater) tradition, as it is an essential lens for understanding character (as well as statecraft). The Javanese are also Indonesia’s largest ethnic group and are essential to victory. Certainly the devotees of wayang among them will judge the candidates in part on how they compare to their favorite characters. One of Indonesia’s most famous dalang(puppeteers), Ki Manteb, has already publicly compared the candidates to two of the most well known and beloved wayang(shadow puppet) characters: Bimaand his older brother Puntadewa. The two are on the side of the just in the epic struggle of good versus evil that pervades the shadow puppet world. How do the candidates appear in comparison to these ancient archetypes ?
The current leader in a recent poll is Joko Widodo (Jokowi, 51). A former mayor and businessman from the central Javanese city of Surakarta, Jokowi projects the character of Puntadewa (also known as Yudhistira): reserved, inner-directed, humble, thoughtful, polite. Although slight of build, Puntadewa becomes king and is known for his wisdom, piety, political sublety, self control and righteousness, which were more important to him than material pursuits.
Prabowo Subianto (62), also Javanese, spent 24 years in military service (rising to the rank of general) and has been active in business since 1998. He is known for his direct communication style, forceful manner, temper, concern for security and discipline, as well as loyalty. He could be compared to Bima the strongest of the satria (knight) upon whose strength rests the fate of the world during the final battle of the Hindu epic, the Mahabarata. Unlike Puntadewa, whose strength often lies in his cleverness, its Bima who finally overcomes all their adversaries with brute strength bordering on ferocity, saving Puntadewa’s kingdom.
Voters nostalgic for the stability of the Suharto era and a sense that Indonesia needs saving as well as decisive leadership might go for Prabowo. They may also appreciate his worldliness (Prabowo attended schools and military training in London and the US) and involvement with Indonesia’s farmers (he chairs the Association for Indonesian Farmers). Prabowo favors a strong central government that can bring order to the “chaotic regions”, spending on big infrastructure projects. He aims to implement a “people’s economy”, and speaks of “developing an Indonesia that is united, sovereign, fair and prosperous, as well as dignified.”
Whereas Prabowo has appeared at rallies on horseback in paramilitary garb, the youthful Jokowi strolls neighborhoods in a modest but fashionable checkered shirt. The former Mayor of Surakarta assumes a humble, thoughtful, and polite manner, and tries to connect to voters with an everyman vision of a future Indonesia based on reform, accountability, honesty and more responsive government. In trying to explain how recent reforms have “been in vain” and why graft and corruption remain despite the efforts of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), he said Indonesians needed to change their mindset with a “mental revolution”. As mayor and now Governor of Jakarta he has been praised for his unexpected visits to government offices, jump starting infrastructure projects, and creating universal health programs for the poor. He is the embodiment of the reform era, the local leader who came up in a grass roots fashion.
Curiously, Prabowo and Jokowi (like Bima and Puntadewa) once were on the same side. Prabowo ran as former President Megawati’s vice president candidate in 2009 and helped bring Jokowi (who is from Mega’s party, PDI-P) from Surakarta to run for Jakarta governor in 2012.
No doubt there are already lively discussions within families or among neighbors over who is most needed now, Bima or Puntadewa. We will hear more from the candidates and their running mates in the weeks ahead.