TIME indonesia

Jakarta Governor Widodo Wins Indonesian Election

(JAKARTA, Indonesia) — Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, who won the hearts of Indonesians with his common man image, won Indonesia’s presidential election with 53 percent of the vote, final results from the Election Commission showed Tuesday.

The numbers were released shortly after his opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, declared he was withdrawing from the contest, saying there was massive fraud during the election and that it was unfair and undemocratic.

Widodo, a former furniture maker known widely as “Jokowi,” had maintained a slim lead of about 4 percentage points in unofficial “quick counts” by polling agencies released after the July 9 election.

But Subianto, who has declared assets of $140 million and was on his third bid for the presidency, repeatedly claimed that polling firms with links to his campaign showed he was ahead.

“We reject the 2014 presidential election which is unlawful and therefore we withdraw from the ongoing process,” he said.

There were no immediate reports of violence. About 100 Subianto supporters held a peaceful protest about 300 meters (300 yards) from the Election Commission building in downtown Jakarta, chanting “Prabowo is the real president” and holding banners saying that the commission should stop cheating.

The building was surrounded by thousands of policemen to maintain security after a particularly nasty presidential campaign. It was the first election that pitted two candidates directly against each other since the Muslim majority country of 240 million emerged from the long and brutal Suharto dictatorship 16 years ago.

Supporters of both men used social media for personal attacks, and Subianto’s supporters led a smear campaign against Widodo, spreading rumors he is not a Muslim.

The commission was to formally declare the winner later Tuesday evening.

Final results showed that Widodo won 70,997,859 votes, or 53.15 percent of the nearly 133 million valid ballots cast, while Subianto won 62,576,444 votes, or 46.85 percent.

Voter turnout was 70.7 percent.

TIME indonesia

The World’s Third Biggest Democracy Is in Political Limbo

INDONESIA-ELECTION
Supporters of Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo rally in central Jakarta after the close of polls on July 9, 2014 ROMEO GACAD—AFP/Getty Images

Indonesia's highly polarized presidential election ends in a close call. The country must wait at least until final results are declared on July 22 to know the shape of its political future

Both candidates in Indonesia’s highly polarized presidential election have claimed victory.

Initial counts by early evening on Wednesday gave the populist governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, around 52% of the vote. His rival, former army general Prabowo Subianto, received about 48%.

Official results are not expected until July 22, meaning that the world’s third largest democracy — and most populous Muslim nation — will be in political limbo for the next two weeks. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has appealed for both sides to show restraint and not to celebrate with mass rallies until the General Elections Commission releases the final tally.

Nevertheless, Jokowi supporters celebrated what they consider his victory with a huge gathering at the Welcome Statue in Jakarta’s central business district and a smaller one at the Proclamation Monument in downtown Jakarta before the breaking of the Ramadan fast on Wednesday night. The latter site, where the country’s founding fathers Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence, is an emotive one for Indonesians. “Today a new history has been made, a new chapter for Indonesia,” Jokowi told the crowd that had gathered there. “This is a victory for the people of Indonesia.”

In a bid to defuse tensions, President Yudhoyono, whose party endorses Prabowo, met the two candidates at his private home outside Jakarta on Wednesday night. At the center of contention are the polling firms — almost a dozen of them — that have done the quick counts, since many pollsters are known to be either affiliated with or even held on retainer by different candidates. However, political analysts say the half-dozen or so firms that give Jokowi a lead not only show a similar margin of victory for him, but also correctly predicted the results of the legislative elections in April.

“We can safely conclude that the quick counts from CSIS, SMRC and others predicting a Jokowi victory are right,” said Aaron Connelly, East Asia fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, who focuses on Indonesia’s politics. In contrast, he says, quick counts that give Prabowo victory “are all over the place, which suggests they have been manipulated to produce a certain result.”

In a blow to the credibility of Prabowo’s camp, an executive at polling firm Poltracking Institute said on Wednesday night that in order to “maintain professionalism” the firm had canceled its agreement to work with tvOne — a station owned by Prabowo backer and Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie.

Poltracking’s results put Jokowi as the winner, but tvOne and other stations owned by Prabowo’s coalition supporters — like Hary Tanoesoedibjo’s RCTI and Global TV — have only broadcast quick counts from pollsters that give Prabowo victory.

It is unlikely that Prabowo (who said in an interview that “losing is not an option”) will concede anytime soon — even, says Connelly, “if it would be better for stability, the markets and the country’s welfare.” If Prabowo is still unhappy with the electoral commission’s official count later this month, he could challenge it in the Constitutional Court. That means Indonesia won’t know for sure who its next leader is until late August.

In the meantime, the situation remains fraught. With paramilitary groups like the Pancasila Youth and the Islamic Defenders Front supporting Prabowo’s presidential bid, there are fears that a hitherto peaceful election process could degenerate into violence.

“I pray whoever loses will behave like a statesman and accept his defeat because elections are the people’s voice,” said pro-Jokowi activist Nong Darol Mahmada on Twitter.

TIME indonesia

The World’s Most Populous Muslim Nation Is About to Decide Its Political Future

Indonesia's polarizing presidential race pits two hugely contrasting candidates and political philosophies against each other. The outcome could affect the future of the country's hard-won democracy

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Indonesia’s presidential election, which has turned into a hotly contested two-horse race, has invited comparisons to famous epic battles, both fictional and historical. Netizens liken it to Bharatayudha — as the final, all-out war in the Hindu epic Mahabharata is known in the country. One political analyst called it “Indonesian Star Wars.” Amien Rais, former chairman of the 30 million-strong Islamic organization Muhammadiyah, brought up the analogy of the Prophet Muhammad’s Battle of Badr.

Hyperbolic they may be, but these comparisons nonetheless reflect how polarizing the July 9 poll has become. It has divided political parties, pitted friends against friends, parents against children, husbands against wives. “I’ve always considered marriage to be the primary cause of why most friendships end,” said one Twitter user. “And then along came the 2014 presidential election.”

The two men vying to lead the country stand in stark contrast to each other, and make this a showdown between political outsider and political patrician. The outsider is Joko Widodo, 53, a onetime furniture entrepreneur who has charmed the public with his down-to-earth demeanor. Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, grew up poor, living in a riverside slum in Solo, Central Java. He cut his teeth in politics as mayor of Solo, where his blusukan (impromptu visits to constituents) and his push for clean governance set him apart from aloof officials in a country plagued with graft scandals. He even won recognition as one of the world’s best mayors. Riding on his immense popularity, Jokowi teamed up with a maverick Chinese-Christian politician to run in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2012 and won.

The patrician is Prabowo Subianto, 62, a former military general dogged by allegations of past human-rights abuses. Prabowo comes from a privileged background: his father, the late economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was a minister under Indonesia’s first two Presidents, Sukarno and Suharto. His brother-in-law is a former central banker, while his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who bankrolls his presidential campaign, is a billionaire with a global business reach. Prabowo himself pursued a military career, and after marrying Suharto’s daughter (the two are now divorced), he quickly climbed up the ranks and took part in military operations battling rebels in East Timor and Irian Jaya. He went on to lead elite army units: the Special Forces and later the Army Strategic Reserve Command. His career ended abruptly after he was discharged from the military in 1998, months after Suharto’s fall, over his role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists.

Sixteen years after the fall of authoritarian strongman Suharto, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population (and Southeast Asia’s biggest economy) is a rare example of democratic reform. The election on Wednesday will usher in a new leader to replace the outgoing incumbent, and the country’s first directly elected leader, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who cannot run again because he has served two terms). But more than that, the poll has become a vote for Indonesia’s future political direction.

On Saturday, speaking to tens of thousands of supporters at a free concert and rally organized by dozens of popular musicians, Jokowi said, “We gather here as part of a democracy that ensures participation of all people in determining the nation’s future, to respect human rights, fight for justice and maintain plurality and peace.” He talks the talk. His deputy mayor in Solo was a Catholic, and in Jakarta, he refused to give in to those protesting against the appointment of a Christian subdistrict head. He also champions pro-poor, populist economic policies.

In contrast, Prabowo, who portrays the image of a firm leader with his fiery speeches and antiforeign rhetoric, repeatedly speaks against Indonesia’s democratic process. In two separate events in late June, the former general said he would like to get rid of direct elections because they were the product of Western values and were breeding corruption. “Our version of democracy is very expensive,” he said. And while Prabowo says he is committed to freedom of religion, his party’s manifesto says that “the state is required to guarantee the purity of teachings of the religions acknowledged by the state,” and his campaign is backed by Islamic hard-liners. Though he often speaks out against corruption, his coalition includes figures tainted by graft allegations.

“This is no longer about a contest between two candidates — it is about the future of Indonesian democracy,” says Marcus Mietzner, an expert of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, about the election. “A vote for Jokowi preserves the existing system, while a vote for Prabowo would send Indonesia onto a path of political uncertainty, conflict and democratic regression. The stakes have never been higher, and that’s why the polarization is at unprecedented levels as well.”

Also unprecedented are the smear tactics. While these have been used in previous elections, both local and foreign observers agree that the intensity and persistence of attacks on Jokowi are something never seen before. In tabloids like Obor Rakyat, which is widely distributed at mosques and Islamic boarding schools on Java, and in social media, Jokowi, who is Muslim and Javanese, is accused of being Christian, of Chinese descent and a communist. There are signs that these calumnies are hurting him. The front runner, who comfortably led opinion polls by over 20% to nearly 30% months ago, has seen the gap narrow to single digits in different opinion polls. Another factor is the highly efficient and effective party machinery behind Prabowo vs. the motley network of volunteers that Jokowi relies upon.

Nevertheless, “Indonesia’s Obama,” as Jokowi has been dubbed, has been making a last-minute spurt, thanks to a wave of Indonesian celebrities declaring their support for him, and his strong performance in the final presidential debate on July 5. Overseas stars have weighed in too — American singer Jason Mraz and Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal have tweeted their support for Jokowi. Sting posted on his official Facebook page: “Use your rights — every vote counts #Jokowi9Juli.”

The percentage of undecided voters has shrunk to around 8%, according to one pollster, but they could still decide the outcome of one of the most crucial polls the country has seen — perhaps the most crucial poll. But at least it is a poll and not a Battle of Badr or a Bharatayudha. As the poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad said: “Elections are the most peaceful way to choose a leader. Not all-out battles, as if there is no tomorrow.”

TIME indonesia

Indonesia Now Has the Highest Rate of Deforestation in the World

Indonesia Forest Fires
Firemen spray water to extinguish wildfires in Dumai, Indonesia, on June 18, 2014 Rony Muharrman—AP

The Southeast Asian nation's forests are now being decimated quicker than those in Brazil

Indonesia now has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, releasing Brazil from its former title, according to a new report published in the Nature Climate Change journal.

Led by researchers at the University of Maryland, the study found that the Southeast Asian nation lost over 6 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012. Despite government attempts to ban logging nationwide, the deforestation rate has increased in recent years. During the final year of the study, in 2012, Indonesia lost a whopping 840,000 hectares of forest while Brazil only lost 460,000 hectares.

Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said in a statement that the findings should serve as a “wake-up call” for greater government action to protect vulnerable wildlife and curtail greenhouse emissions. “While it was a welcome step, it’s clear that Indonesia’s forest moratorium has not worked,” he said. “Law enforcement is weak, and even the country’s national parks are being logged — but now is a critical time for action.”

The findings will likely be a recurring topic of conversation during this month’s presidential election. Rival candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto will discuss the environment later this week during a televised debate, and Greenpeace urges both to propose viable solutions to deforestation and to encourage sustainable practices.

TIME

This Indonesian Nazi Video Is One of the Worst Pieces of Political Campaigning Ever

As the candidate who it was made for, Prabowo Subianto, once said, "Do I have the guts, am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?"

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A music video made by several singers as a tribute to Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is causing outrage with its strong Nazi overtones.

In the video, an adaptation of the Queen classic “We Will Rock You,” musician Ahmad Dhani sports a fascist-style uniform and holds a golden Garuda — a mythical bird that is Indonesia’s emblem but which, against the black of his paramilitary attire, looks uncomfortably like the German imperial eagle that the Nazis incorporated into their iconography.

Bali-based filmmaker Daniel Ziv described the video as bringing “Nazi skinhead imagery to Indonesian politics.”

That turns out to be an apt description. German news magazine Der Spiegel pointed out that Dhani’s military costume is eerily similar to the uniform worn by SS commander Heinrich Himmler. “Dhani wears the same emblem on the lapel and the same red breast-pocket lining,” it said Tuesday, comparing the photos of the two in a photo gallery.

Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist, has waded into the controversy, saying “of course this is completely unauthorised by us.”

Despite widespread criticism, including from fellow Indonesian musicians, Dhani, who is partly Jewish, is unrepentant. “What’s the connection between German soldiers and Indonesia?” was his baffling comment to Indonesian media Wednesday. “What’s the connection between German soldiers and Indonesian musicians? We, the Indonesian people, didn’t kill millions of Jewish people, right?”

As the July 9 election is approaching, the campaign has been heating up, with supporters of both presidential candidates using social media to appeal to the young, urban voters. Dhani’s music video for Prabowo was released shortly after pop musicians like Oppie Andaresta and rock band Slank, who support rival candidate Joko Widodo, made their own song and music video, titled “Two-Finger Salute.”

On his Facebook page on Friday, Prabowo thanked Dhani and other singers for their “contribution,” saying: “This video is boosting our fighting spirit!”

While the appeal of Nazi chic is not uncommon in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia — a Nazi-themed café reopened in the Indonesian city of Bandung just days ago — it is particularly telling that fascist imagery has been used to drum up support for Prabowo, who was discharged from military in 1998 over the abduction of pro-democracy activists, and who is given to such strongman gestures as appearing at campaign rallies on horseback before an honor guard.

Over the weekend, American journalist Allan Nairn posted on his blog a 2001 interview, in which Prabowo said that Indonesia needed “a benign authoritarian regime.” The former general, who made clear his admiration toward Pakistan’s then ruling strongman Pervez Musharraf, told Nairn: “Do I have the guts, am I ready to be called a fascist dictator? Musharraf had the guts.”

Hopefully Indonesia won’t get a chance to find out.

— With reporting by Stephanie Burnett

TIME Iraq

Sorry, Jihadis, but You Won’t Be Able to Buy ISIS T-Shirts on Facebook

A fighter of the ISIL holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) holds an ISIS flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 Reuters

T-shirts for terrorists get a ton of dislikes

Facebook has blocked the attempted sale of ISIS hoodies, T-shirts and toy figurines on the social network.

The shirts include the Sunni militant group’s logo and slogans like “We Are All ISIS” and “Fight for Freedom, Until the Last Drop of Blood,” and cost around $10.

The group is currently embroiled in all-out insurgency in Iraq, where it has seized several key areas.

Facebook was swift to respond. “Where hateful content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables accounts of those responsible,” a spokesperson told CNN via email.

ISIS merchandize is also available on Twitter, but CNN reports that the microblogging site declined to comment.

Many of the manufacturers selling ISIS paraphernalia come from Indonesia, where there is some support for the extremist group, but it’s not clear whether revenue from the merchandise is going to sympathizers, opportunistic entrepreneurs or ISIS itself.

Terrorism researcher J.M. Berger says he wouldn’t be surprised if profits go to the latter. “ISIS has a big base of support in Southeast Asia — a long history with Islamism and jihadism. A number of foreign fighters come from the region,” Berger stated to CNN.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict published a report in January stating that conflict in the Middle East is attracting fighters from Indonesia.

“Indonesian extremists are more engaged by the conflict in Syria than by any other foreign war in recent memory, including Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report said.

[CNN]

TIME Hong Kong

‘Racist’ Insurance Commercial Draws Outrage in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Domestic Help System Under Scrutiny Following Recent Cases Of Abuse
Indonesian domestic workers protest in the streets of Causeway Bay to demand better working conditions in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 2014 Jessica Hromas—Getty Images

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong has been deemed as racist by advocates of domestic workers and prompted outrage on social media

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong that features a male Chinese actor who impersonates a clumsy Filipina maid has been deemed as racist by domestic-worker advocates and prompted outrage on social media — reminding many Hong Kong residents of the unfair treatment of foreign domestic workers.

The advertisement for domestic-helper insurance by Malaysia’s Hong Leong Bank shows the Chinese actor as “Maria” while wearing a curly wig and covered in dark orange makeup. Foreign maids who are mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have become a common fixture in Hong Kong since the booming of the economy in the mid-1970s.

Along with the immigration of more than 300,000 domestic workers to Hong Kong have come horror stories of their unjust treatment by employers. Recent high-profile cases like the hospitalization of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who was allegedly beaten by her employer for eight months, have brought to light the abuse of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and prompted many of them to speak up. During the One Billion Rising event in February, a global campaign to end the abuse of women, hundreds of domestic workers there joined together to demand fairer treatment.

Erwiana’s employer, Law Wan-tung, is currently on trial and has pleaded not guilty to charges of withholding payment, criminal intimidation and causing bodily harm.

An Amnesty International report in 2013 stated that Indonesian women trafficked as domestic workers face “slavery-like conditions” in Hong Kong and that both the Hong Kong and Indonesian governments turn a blind eye to the “widespread abuse and exploitation” that foreign workers endure.

The controversial commercial comes only a few weeks after pictures from textbooks that feature racial stereotypes went viral on social media in Hong Kong. One exercise in the book invited students to match job descriptions with nationalities, prompting children to associate domestic work with a seemingly Filipina figure.

Advocates for domestic workers say the recent outpourings of racial discrimination are only a fragment of the mistreatment that domestic workers have experienced for years. Eni Lestari, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, told AFP the commercial lampooned an entire community by dressing the Chinese actor up in blackface instead of hiring an Indonesian or Filipina woman to play the role. Although it was supposed to be funny to Chinese residents, Lestari added, “what they don’t realize is what’s funny is actually racist.”

[AFP]

TIME indonesia

The ISIS Extremists Causing Havoc in Iraq Are Getting Funds and Recruits From Southeast Asia

Militants from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, are being lured by ISIS's hard-line Sunni extremism

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Men in balaclavas are cradling Kalashnikovs as they look into a camera, somewhere in Syria. They are university students, businessmen, former soldiers and even teenagers. One by one, they urge their fellow countrymen to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group so extreme that it has been denounced by al-Qaeda. But these aren’t Syrians, or Uzbeks, or Chechens. They are Indonesian.

“Let us fight in the path of Allah because it is our duty to do jihad in the path of Allah … especially here in Sham [the Syrian region] … and because, God willing, it will be to this country that our families will do the holy migration,” says one in Bahasa Indonesia peppered with Arabic phrases. “Brothers in Indonesia, don’t be afraid because fear is the temptation of Satan.”

A fellow jihadist, a former Indonesian soldier, calls on those in the police and armed forces to repent and abandon the defense of their country and its “idolatrous” state ideology, Pancasila.

The video of the Indonesian men in Syria emerged shortly before ISIS seized the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, in landmark victories on June 10 and 11. It reflects the growing attraction that the Sunni extremist group holds for the most militant jihadists from Indonesia — the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population, and one that has long battled threats of terrorism.

“Like in Syria, the Sunni jihadi movement is split in Indonesia,” Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, tells TIME. Some Indonesian jihadists, including many senior leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah (the group behind the Bali bombings in 2002 and other terrorist attacks) are loyal to the alliance around the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, she says, “while most of the more militant, non-JI groups are supporting ISIS.”

According to a recent report, the Syrian conflict has lured an estimated 12,000 foreign fighters, mostly from neighboring Middle Eastern countries, but also from Europe, Australia, the U.S. — and Southeast Asia. In January, Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency reckoned about 50 Indonesians had gone to fight in Syria, though it is not known how many of them joined ISIS. A Malaysian security official said more than 20 Malaysians are known to have entered Syria to fight Bashar Assad’s regime.

On Saturday, Malaysian media reported that Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, who bombed an Iraqi military headquarters, earned “the dubious honor of being Malaysia’s first suicide bomber linked to” ISIS. Some months earlier, in November, reports emerged that Riza Fardi, who studied at the infamous Ngruki Islamic boarding school in Central Java — the same school attended by the Bali bombers — became the first Indonesian jihadist to die in Syria.

While terrorist threats have waned in Southeast Asia, thanks to imprisonment and deaths of senior jihadist figures, the civil war in Syria, and now in Iraq, has raised the specter of fighters returning home with the terrorist know-how and a militant outlook — not unlike the returnees from the Afghan war in the 1980s. “Returning fighters will have deeper indoctrination, more international contacts and perhaps a deeper commitment to the global jihad,” says Jones.

The three-year Syrian war has attracted even more foreign fighters than the Afghan war. One possible reason is a prophecy, popular among global jihadists, about the final battle before Judgment Day. “There are hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that predict an apocalyptic war of good vs. evil, and according to one hadith, it would start in Syria,” says Solahudin, a Jakarta-based terrorism expert.

Indonesia has a different approach to jihadism than its neighbors. Though terrorist attacks are punishable by death, it is not illegal to raise money for or join a foreign jihadist group. In contrast, in late April, Malaysia arrested 10 militants — eight men and two women — who planned to travel to Syria to take part in the war. In March, Singapore said it was investigating the departure of a national to join the Syrian jihad.

Emboldened by Indonesia’s more tolerant attitude, ISIS supporters there have become more visible and openly solicit funds. They held a collection in February at an Islamic state university on the outskirts of Jakarta and held a rally in the capital’s central business district in March. On June 15, a Sunday morning when one of the main streets in the Central Javanese city of Solo is transformed into a weekly car-free zone for strolling families, militants from Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, a JI splinter cell, paraded in ISIS insignia, waved ISIS flags and wreaked havoc on a music performance.

They are also quite active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Iqbal Kholidi, who tracks and observes Indonesian ISIS supporters on social media, has culled photos of them training and posing with the signature black flags from across the country — in Jakarta, Central Java, South Kalimantan and Poso, Central Sulawesi. They have become bolder in recent months, Iqbal says, and that is likely “because there is an impression that the authorities are just keeping quiet all this time.”

TIME Asia

Here’s Why Some Indonesians Are Spooked by This Presidential Contender

Retired general Prabowo Subianto rides a horse at a stadium in Jakarta during a campaign rally of the Gerindra party on March 23, 2014 Kyodo / AP

Prabowo Subianto is vying to become President of the world's most populous Muslim nation. But many feel he has yet to adequately explain rights abuses that took place when he was head of the country's special forces 16 years ago

Some Indonesians refuse to forget. It’s been 16 years since retired general Suharto relinquished power, but relatives of those who perished or disappeared under his oppressive rule continue to stage protests at Freedom Square in the capital Jakarta every Thursday. Maria Katarina Sumarsih has only missed 12 such gatherings over the past eight years. Her son, a humanitarian volunteer during the 1998 student uprising, was shot dead when he attempted to tend to a wounded protester. Sumarsih is still waiting for justice to be meted out to those responsible.

“Indonesia is the third biggest democracy in the world, but I and all my friends here feel we’ve been abandoned,” she says, adding that she’s afraid the situation could get worse. “If Prabowo becomes President, the population should be prepared to become victims of human-rights violations again.”

Indonesia has come a long way since Suharto. The military has been pushed out of the political scene, the freedoms of press and speech have vastly improved, and July 9 will mark the first time the country replaces one directly elected President with another. For human-rights advocates, however, a huge question mark hangs over the head of one of the leading candidates, Prabowo Subianto.

Toward the end of Suharto’s rule, military units abducted and tortured 23 democracy activists, 13 of whom have not been seen since. Riots followed, leading to over a thousand deaths and scores of rapes. One of the men accused of having orchestrated these abuses is Prabowo — then commander of the special forces.

If Indonesia has come far since Suharto’s rule, so has Prabowo. When Suharto fell in May 1998, Prabowo was head of the army strategic-reserve command, but quickly found himself discredited and discharged from the military, upon which he went into self-imposed exile. Today, he’s refashioned himself as a decisive political leader, the champion of rich and poor alike, and a well-oiled campaign has catapulted him to social-media fame, with a Facebook following that trails only the likes of Barack Obama and Narendra Modi. While Prabowo has admitted to abducting nine activists in 1998, he denies wrongdoing, insisting that these individuals were released and that he was only following orders. He has never been officially questioned, and many Indonesians turn a blind eye to the disputed episode.

“Young people just idolize a leader that looks strong and assertive, they don’t even have the imagination to understand what it was like to live under an authoritarian leader,” says Margiyono, a student activist during the Suharto years. Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, has even managed to attract some former abductees to its camp, but for people like Margiyono, the possibility of Prabowo becoming national leader brings back dark memories.

Agitating for East Timorese independence and Indonesian democracy in the 1990s, Margiyono clashed with paramilitaries believed to be under Prabowo’s command on several occasions, and his flatmate was one of the abductees who never returned. Earlier this year, Margiyono left his job in journalism to start a support organization for Prabowo’s presidential rival Joko Widodo, the Jakarta governor popularly known as Jokowi — not because Margiyono is a Jokowi fan, but because he’s afraid of what would happen if Prabowo wins.

“[Prabowo is] Suharto’s son-in-law, they’re ideologically the same,” he says. “The problem is that under Suharto, formal education taught us what it was like to live under [Suharto's autocratic predecessor] Sukarno, but [today's] reform government doesn’t teach us about the democracy situation under Suharto.”

A recent poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute discovered that about 70% of respondents were unaware of the allegations against Prabowo or his discharge from the army. Consequently, he presents to the public those aspects of his military past that suit him. On the campaign trail, he plays the part of the strongman. He has been known to enter a stadium, packed with supporters and uniformed party cadres, in semifascist splendor astride a handsome horse. And he frequently peppers his speeches with anti-Western statements and criticism of multinationals, styling himself as a reborn Sukarno, even dressing like modern Indonesia’s founding father. His supporters sport T-shirts featuring a trendy graphic image of Prabowo wearing Sukarno’s favored peci, or traditional cap.

However, pressure is mounting on Prabowo to clarify his role in the troubles of 1998. A leaked document is currently circulating on the Internet, saying that Prabowo was discharged, among other things, for insubordination after ordering special-forces units to arrest and detain activists. Separately, a group of human-rights advocates has launched a court challenge aimed at bringing Prabowo and others to trial. A former major general, Kivlan Zen, has also come forward, stating that he knew who abducted the missing activists, as well as where they are buried, but he has yet to be officially questioned.

“This new fact gives a political opportunity for us human-rights activists,” says Rafendi Djamin, director of the Human Rights Working Group. “There should be action from the relevant state institutions.”

Worryingly, in 2009 the Indonesian parliament voted in favor of setting up an extraordinary court to deal with the allegations against Prabowo, but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has yet to sign off on the proposal.

“It’s a serious issue that Prabowo has been recognized as a presidential candidate before settling these allegations of crimes against humanity,” says Rafendi. “There is a need to clarify this as soon as possible, not only for the relatives of the victims, but for the whole country, to make sure this kind of crime doesn’t happen again.”

Dodi Ambardi, executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute, believes chances of such clarification are slim. His institute conducted a survey of people who know about the allegations against Prabowo, and found that the majority were willing to forgive him.

“To a large extent, the human-rights allegations are a middle-class issue,” says Dodi. “Prabowo attracts many voters locally because he’s seen as the candidate of the Islamic community and because he presents himself as a national hero.”

The Gerindra party’s savvy campaigning has managed to secure a diverse voter base. Coalition building with Islamic parties has won it the religious nod. The co-opting of nationalist symbols, like the mythical garuda bird, ticks nationalist boxes, as does Prabowo’s military and his claims to an aristocratic lineage. A video made by party supporters to Pharrell Williams’ viral hit “Happy” gave his image a modern gloss, as did his appearance on the recent final of Indonesian Idol to hand out prizes.

Fadli Zon, the deputy chairman of Gerindra, says the allegations of rights abuses are outdated.

“These human-rights cases aimed at defaming Prabowo are continuously recycled,” he tells TIME. “But people are smart, so it will have no influence on our campaign.”

Campaign managers are even happy to play off the accusations. Gerindra has published a book called Kidnapped by Prabowo, describing it as “a story based on real events,” and featuring a striking cover of a frightened man being grabbed from behind. When readers open the book, however, they learn that this is not an account of activist abductions but a parable of how an ordinary man is brought into Prabowo’s life, and gets to see the great man from behind the scenes.

Noudhy Valdryno, the head of Gerindra’s social-media team, says he relishes the opportunity to explain to Indonesia’s digital-savvy youth that in 1998 Prabowo was a military leader defending the security interests of his country. “If they start arguing with us, we get the chance to explain more, so it’s a win-win situation for us,” he says.

As a result of this clever and aggressive campaigning, Jokowi’s once gaping lead has been reduced to 10% with only a month left to go, and Prabowo’s repeated assertions of his innocence could further narrow that gap. On Monday night, as the two presidential candidates squared off in their first televised debate, the notoriously temperamental Prabowo got emotional when answering a question on his human-rights position from Jusuf Kalla, Jokowi’s running mate.

“I understand where you’re going with this: whether I would be able to protect human rights because I am a human-rights violator,” said Prabowo. “Is that what you’re getting at, sir? Mr. Jusuf Kalla, I take responsibility, and my conscience is clear: I am the strongest defender of human rights in this republic.”

Many Indonesians believe him.

TIME indonesia

What Indonesia Can Teach Thailand and Egypt About Democracy (and Vice Versa)

Indonesia Election
A member of the An-Nadzir Muslim sect shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station during the Indonesian parliamentary elections in Gowa, South Sulawesi province, on April 9, 2014 Masyudi S. Firmansyah—AP

With democracy besieged in much of Asia and the Muslim world, Indonesia is something of a beacon. The world's most populous Muslim nation has successfully rid its politics of military intervention, and is about to embark on another free and fair direct election for its next leader

A coup in Thailand. A landslide electoral victory in Egypt for a former military chief who overthrew an elected government. Democracy remains elusive in much of Southeast Asia and in much of the Muslim world. Yet, one Muslim-majority country in Southeast Asia proves it is not necessarily so.

Indonesia, which holds both parliamentary and presidential elections this year, is a testament to transformation. In 2001, three years after the fall of authoritarian President Suharto, Indonesia faced a multitude of crises, from Christian-Muslim sectarian strife and Islamist terrorist attacks, to separatist conflicts. That year, Thaksin Shinawatra won elections by landslide and became Thailand’s Prime Minister, but Indonesia’s first democratically elected President, Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, was forced to step down after months of wrangling with lawmakers.

And yet, instead of turning to the men in uniform, Indonesia pressed ahead with political reform — reformasi, as it’s called in Bahasa Indonesia. In 2004, it not only held its first directly elected presidential vote (Gus Dur was elected by legislators), but the military lost its reserved parliamentary seats. “Reformasi achieved a great accomplishment for Indonesian democracy: pushing the military back into the barracks,” says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an associate researcher at the Jakarta-based think tank Freedom Institute.

On July 9, Indonesia is set to choose its next President, in the third poll in which voters can directly elect their country’s top leader. The two presidential contenders are polar opposites. Joko Widodo is a soft-spoken and immensely popular Jakarta Governor. Prabowo Subianto is a former special-forces commander with a dubious human-rights record and infamously fiery temper.

Prabowo’s camp touts the ex-general as a decisive and firm leader, while Joko’s camp takes pride in his humble and down-to-earth quality. “One represents the culture of a tough military commander, and the other the culture of ordinary, rather than aristocratic, Javanese people,” wrote senior editor Endy Bayuni in the Jakarta Post.

Although the military is out of politics, many retired officers build their second career in it. Prabowo naturally attracts quite a few former soldiers, and there are a number on Joko’s side too, including Wiranto, the Hanura Party’s founder who, in 2000, lost his post as Security Minister over alleged involvement in East Timor’s referendum violence.

But no retired officer is more polarizing than Prabowo. His critics see the 62-year-old as part of Suharto’s authoritarian regime — he was married to a daughter of Suharto, joined elite military units and took part in military operations in the separatist provinces of East Timor and Irian Jaya. His quick rise through the ranks was cut short in 1998 after he was discharged from the military because of his alleged role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists in the months before the fall of Suharto.

His Gerindra Party has formed a coalition with three Islamic parties, two of which are known for intolerant views toward religious minorities. Gerindra’s manifesto has also raised alarm. While it guarantees freedom of religion, it also says that “the state is required to guarantee the purity of teachings of the religions acknowledged by the state from all forms of defamation and deviation.” That is likely to spell more trouble to groups like the Shi‘ite and Ahmadi Muslims, who are frequent victims of violence and intolerance.

Although opinion polls show that Prabowo has gained ground, the 52-year-old Joko, nicknamed Jokowi, is the front runner in the presidential race. But even if Prabowo wins the election, some analysts argue that it will be difficult for him to bring back military rule. “Indonesia’s democratic institutions are pretty solid and can’t be overturned by him,” Ulil says, adding that people should be more worried about “the radical forces around him that support his agenda.”

Prabowo himself tries to assuage fears. “I don’t want to lead in an authoritarian manner,” he said on Twitter, responding to a tweet that suggested if the former general became President, he could follow in the footsteps of the Thai junta, which threatened to block social media (and, according to some reports, briefly did so on Wednesday). “Whatever my political rivals say, I support freedom of the press and of expression.”

But many remain skeptical. “The first obstacle that we have to face,” said Fadjroel Rachman, a student activist turned political commentator, “is the return of the danger of fascism.” And if anything, Indonesia should look to Thailand and Egypt to draw the most important lesson of all: democracy should never be something to be taken for granted.

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