Indonesia's Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a leading presidential candidate and a former army general, is betting on his third bid to lead Southeast Asia's largest democracy in elections slated for Wednesday by making every effort.

Although he lost to outgoing President Joko Widodo in the previous 2014 and 2019 elections, Prabowo picked the popular leader's son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, as his running mate, despite the minimum age requirement of 40 for presidential or vice presidential candidates.

The selection followed a controversial court ruling in October issued by judges, including Jokowi's brother-in-law, that exempted candidates who have won regional elections.

The eldest son of Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, is the mayor of a city in Central Java Province.

Indonesia's Defense Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks at an election debate in Jakarta on Feb. 4, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Criticism has mounted that Jokowi, constrained by a two-term limit, intends to establish a political dynasty, potentially undermining democracy in the nation after decades of dictatorship until 1998 under Suharto, Prabowo's former father-in-law.

Jokowi has indirectly but clearly supported Prabowo's candidacy for the Gerindra party, a coalition partner in Jokowi's government, while also distancing himself from his ruling party, fielding former Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo.

Latest opinion polls showed Prabowo is ahead at around 52 percent, compared with 20 percent for Ganjar and 24 percent for former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan. But unless a pair gain over 50 percent of the vote, respectively, the top two pairs will go to a runoff in June.

The candidacy of Prabowo, who had headed the army's special force command that allegedly kidnapped and tortured political opponents and student activists in the late 1990s, has been met with fierce opposition from victims and their families.

During the election campaign, Prabowo vowed to continue key policies of Jokowi, whose infrastructure projects such as a high-speed railway built with Chinese technology are popular, trying to gain votes from younger generations.

To change the 72-year-old's image as a stern general, his campaign team has portrayed him as a "cute grandpa" by spreading video footage of him jiggling his arms while dancing around. It went viral on social media.

The team also distributed posters of Prabowo and Gibran as cartoon characters in promoting a "free lunch and free milk" program for elementary and secondary school students.

"I know nothing about politics, but I really love his gimmicks," Suhono Febri Nugroho, a 25-year-old chef at a coffee shop in Tangerang in the suburb of Jakarta, said.

Knowing about Prabowo's past from the internet, he said, "As a military soldier, he only followed orders from the top," and determined his choice would be Prabowo.

Prabowo was fired from the military in 1998 for his alleged role in the kidnappings of student activists, with one of them found dead and 13 still missing. Although he has denied involvement, the victims and their families demand his arrest.

During a debate of the candidates on Feb. 4, Ganjar said, "Voters should not choose a candidate who is authoritarian and has a history of human rights abuses."

But Prabowo did not show anger, in contrast to previous debates in which he was aggressive toward Ganjar and Anies.

In his closing statement, he said, "I will be the president for all Indonesians, including those who don't vote for me, including those who don't trust me," in a remark similar to what Jokowi said after being reelected in 2019.

Prabowo pledges to continue Jokowi's project of moving the capital from Jakarta to the under-construction city of Nusantara in West Kalimantan Province, in Borneo.

Anies, a 54-year-old former university professor, criticized the $35 billion project, arguing that addressing the basic needs of people residing there is more important than spending the money to build a new capital.

On the international front, all the candidates said they would maintain Indonesia's traditional policy of being a "non-bloc" country.

But Ganjar proposed a change in the decision-making process in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, currently based on consensus among its 10 members, by adopting voting to deal with such unresolved issues as territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Regarding a proposed "code of conduct" agreement in the sea, being drawn up by ASEAN and China in recent years to help avert confrontation in the region, Ganjar said the countries should reach a "temporary agreement" to prevent disputes in the sea.

In a debate in late January, vice presidential candidates discussed trade policies, including a ban on the export of unprocessed nickel ore that the Jokowi government has introduced.

The ban by the world's largest nickel producer is a part of the government's "downstreaming" policy to establish a domestic value chain for mineral processing amid increasing demand for the mineral used in electric vehicle batteries.

Anies's running mate Muhaimin Iskandar said the downstreaming of nickel, particularly with smelters increasingly owned by Chinese companies, has caused problems.

"We're witnessing how downstreaming is being done recklessly in the mining...causing accidents, with foreign workers dominating," Iskandar said.

But Gibran said Indonesia's natural resources including nickel must be utilized for the prosperity of the people.

Before Prabowo announced Gibran as his running mate, Prabowo and Ganjar had been neck and neck in the race. But Prabowo's popularity has climbed since the announcement.

The controversial court ruling has caused debates, with the chief justice, Jokowi's brother-in-law, being removed by an ethics panel for failing to recuse himself from the case.

Professors of national universities have expressed concerns over Jokowi's endorsement of Gibran's candidacy and his apparent intervention in the election campaign to aid Prabowo's victory.

Essayist Goenawan Mohammad, who had voted for Jokowi in past elections, called the ruling and Jokowi's support for his son's running a "betrayal against Indonesia's democracy."

Jokowi is also under fire amid allegations he was behind moves by authorities of several cities to revoke permission for Anies's popular events to discuss various topics with young people.

Yose Rizal Damuri, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Jokowi wants to "ensure the continuity of all the programs he has already initiated," including the Nusantara project, by supporting Prabowo.

Indonesian voters, especially youth, only care about jobs and low prices, Yose said, adding, "Economic stability remains the priority, while the democratic process might be less."

Youngsters absorbed in the internet and social media have diminished abilities in reading, writing and analytical thinking, so politicians can easily manipulate them by using gimmicks, he said.

Data from the General Elections Commission shows eligible voters aged between 17 and 40 represent 52 percent of the 205 million electorates.

Among the young voters, however, there are those who want to see changes in policies.

Shania, a 23-year-old office worker who goes by a single name like many Indonesians, said he will support Anies.

"He is smart and currently not in the government," he said, adding that Anies presented fresh ideas and programs that are more "down-to-earth and logical" than those of other candidates.

Yose, meanwhile, lamented that whoever wins, Indonesia's democracy has been tainted by Jokowi.

"It will cost a lot to the Indonesian democratic process in the future because now people tend to see those in power can do anything to maintain the power," he said.

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