Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, second left, his running mate Hatta Rajasa, left, Joko Widodo, second right and his running mate Jusuf Kalla are introduced to the audience by moderator Sudharto P. Hadi, center, during a televised debate in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday. Pic: AP.

On Wednesday this week Indonesia will bear witness to an important milestone in its democratic history, as voters head to the polls for the country’s third ever direct presidential election.

Rival candidates Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto will be going head-to-head in one of the most fiercely contested electoral showdowns since the country’s return to democracy in 1998.

Unlike previous presidential elections held in 2004 and 2009, this year’s contest is between two candidates only and must be decided in just one round of voting. This is an unprecedented situation for Indonesia – the world’s third largest democracy – and tensions are running higher than ever as the two candidates enter the crucial final stage of the campaign season.

Jokowi has become the target of perhaps more smear campaigns than any other Indonesian politician in modern times, and Prabowo continues to press forward in the polls despite having made some unforgivable campaign blunders thus far, such as the Nazi-themed campaign music video.

As has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks, the margin of victory will likely be a single digit figure, perhaps as little as 3.4%, leading some observers to speculate that conflict could spread in the event that the losing party refuses to accept a fair and square defeat.

No other Indonesian election to date has polarised voters as this one has. A major upheaval in the makeup and direction of government is a certified guarantee – regardless of which team comes out on top.

So who’s who in this year’s presidential election? What do we know about the candidates and what might an Indonesia under their leadership look like?

The most important thing to recognise is that Jokowi and Prabowo occupy opposite ends of Indonesia’s political spectrum. Each candidate represents a totally different kind of politics, and portrays a strikingly dissimilar vision of the nation’s future.

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo. Pic: AP.

Jokowi is a refreshingly humble figure: a laidback, reformist politician who has made a name for himself through his hands-on style of administration, his down-to-earth personal appeal, and his incorruptible rise to the very highest level of national politics.

After starting out as a lowly furniture salesman in his native city of Solo, Jokowi’s  explosive political career has led him through two hugely successful stints in office as Solo mayor, followed by an impressive election victory in Jakarta which established him as governor of the capital in 2012.

Jokowi’s sudden ascendancy and widespread popularity has much to do with his trademark, dialogue-driven approach to politics, which often entails making direct visits to deprived or problematic constituencies, where the easygoing governor will meet with local people and listen to their concerns in person. Jokowi prides himself on having revamped many of the capital’s previously ‘unmanageable’ areas in this way, such as the perennially congested Tanah Abang trading bloc in West Jakarta, which has been rescued from something of an urban implosion thanks to the skilled mediation of the amicable governor.

Prabowo Subianto. Pic: AP.

In stark contrast to Jokowi’s modest background and folksy charm, Prabowo is a longstanding elite figure: a rabble-rousing showman and an exemplary product of Indonesia’s notorious New Order dictatorship.

Formerly the son-in-law to Major General Suharto – one of the most corrupt leaders of the 20th century – Prabowo has previously spent much of his career ingratiated among the highest echelons of Indonesia’s 32-year ‘kleptocracy’. His father was a leading economist during the New Order period, and the family prospered spectacularly through close contact with Suharto and other figures at the centre of the regime.

Through no mere chance Prabowo rose through the ranks of the military faster than any other soldier of a comparable age, but was eventually discharged from the army for “exceeding orders” – a military euphemism for presiding over abductions and disappearances of pro-democracy activists – a scandal which precipitated Prabowo’s fall from grace amid the tumultuous ousting of Suharto in the summer of 1998.

Substantial allegations of extensive human rights violations committed by Prabowo during the New Order period continue to plague his reputation both at home and abroad, but the once disgraced former general remains defiant in the face of such criticism, assuring voters that he is both innocent and ready to lead the nation with all the firmness and patriotism of a soldier-cum-statesman.

One thing Prabowo is certainly lacking, however, is previous experience in public office – something which he conceals well and is rarely questioned on. This is mainly due to the normalcy of former military figures entering politics in Indonesia, which helps maintain an awkward, post-authoritarian yearning for military style efficiency and discipline in government – albeit within the framework of civilian democracy.

Prabowo has campaigned on precisely this platform – that of an iron-fisted leader unhindered by petty bureaucracy and participatory democracy, which – he claims – “exhausts us”.  This is reflected by Prabowo’s relish for verbose oratory and showy displays of nationalistic pomp, which helps compensate for his lack of political acumen and augment his strongman appeal. In March this year, for example, Prabowo held an election rally at Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, where he could be seen parading around on a Lusianto thoroughbred whilst inspecting a phalanx of uniformed party cadres dressed in red berets and combat boots. An interesting item of theatre perhaps, but hardly the custom of a civilian politician in the 21st century.

Jokowi, on the other hand, campaigns in a much more level-headed and conventional fashion. He may not have the bluster of Prabowo when it comes to public speaking, but he has an immaculate and effective track record to fall back on. Jokowi emphasises the tangible improvements he has made to the lives of ordinary Indonesians, through such schemes as peaceful relocations of slum-dwellers and hawkers, government-sponsored housing projects, universal healthcare cards and minimum wage hikes in the capital.

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Despite such achievements, however, Jokowi has failed to stem the rhetorical juggernaut of Prabowo Subianto, and has often been criticised for not sufficiently challenging his rival to account for such things as his untried human rights charges and his contradictory pronouncements on the future of Indonesia’s democracy and economy.

Typically Prabowo pertains to be a steadfast economic nationalist, and can often be heard railing furiously against unnamed foreign enemies ‘stealing’ the wealth of Indonesia’s natural resources. But at other times – depending on his audience – Prabowo reiterates his commitment to foreign investment and invites multinational companies to come and do business in Indonesia. (See video here for Prabowo’s split-personality campaign).

Given the slew of mixed messages which punctuate his election campaign, a ballot for Prabowo would certainly be a leap of faith for Indonesia’s voters. His views on the economy are unclear at best, and his commitment to democracy in the long-term is currently looking more doubtful than ever.

In recent weeks Prabowo has indicated that he would like to do away with direct presidential elections in future, and has also voiced his opinion that Western-style democracy is incompatible with the “cultural values of our ancestors”. When later questioned about his views on democracy by an academic from Australian National University, Prabowo refused to give a guarantee that direct presidential elections would be allowed to continue if he was (paradoxically) elected as president. Instead, he declared that such elections are a costly burden on the Indonesian government and might better be replaced by some form of “democracy that is consistent with our economic means”.

Prabowo is very much the terrifying enigma of this year’s presidential contest: his views are obscure, his alliances shady, his past tarnished and his temper fast as ever.

The outcome of the election will posit spectacular ramifications for the future of Indonesia’s nascent democracy: a victory for Prabowo could well precipitate a return to the authoritarianism and rampant impunity of the Suharto era, and a victory for Jokowi would likely consolidate and further the democratic gains made by Indonesia since the demise of the New Order. It’s a choice between progress or regress, commitment to democracy and rule of law or a return to the dark old days of the Suharto era.