Plenty of mud thrown ahead of Indonesian election, and some of it’s sticking

Front runner in Indonesia presidential race hit by rumours he is an ethnic Chinese Christian

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 6:43pm


While US President Barack Obama was accused of being a Kenyan-born Muslim before being elected, in Indonesia the front runner in its presidential election, Joko Widodo, has been branded an ethnic Chinese Christian.

Smear campaigns have escalated ahead of next Wednesday's election, a trend commentators say has contributed to a steep fall in support for Widodo.

In another attack, a senior official from the party of Prabowo Subianto, the only other contender, suggested on Twitter that Widodo was a communist, playing on fears that linger from the era of dictator Suharto.

While Widodo - known by his nickname Jokowi - has borne the brunt of the attacks, Prabowo has also been targeted. He has been labelled a psychopath, and a YouTube video of the infamously hot-headed ex-general punching someone at an election rally went viral, even though it appeared to have been doctored.

Most of these allegations have been denied or proven to be false. But in a social-media-mad country where rumours spread fast, they appear to be having an impact, commentators say.

"I'm very afraid that the outcome of the election is not going to be based on informed votes, because smear campaigns are having an impact on voters," Endy Bayuni, senior editor at the Englishlanguage daily The Jakarta Post, said at a panel discussion.

Just a few months ago, Widodo had a 30 percentage point lead on Prabowo, but polls last week showed the gap had narrowed to single digits.

In an Indikator Politik Indonesia survey, 17 per cent of more than 3,000 people said they had heard the rumour Widodo was an ethnic Chinese Christian. Of those, 37 per cent believed it.

Widodo's team have sought to highlight Prabowo's human rights record. He ordered the abduction of student activists before Suharto's downfall in 1998.

Indikator said this appeared to have had little impact on voters, despite the fact it was true.

The claim about Widodo's religion and ancestry, vehemently denied, could alienate Muslim voters and play on resentment towards the ethnic Chinese.

The rumours were spread predominantly through a new tabloid, Obor Rakyat ( The People's Torch), widely seen as a vehicle for pro-Prabowo propaganda, which was distributed to Islamic boarding schools and mosques on the main island of Java.

Dr Ross Tapsell, an Indonesian media expert at the Australian National University, said the rumours were "ridiculous" but added: "They get circulated and, particularly in regions of Java, it will be important."