Muslim-majority Indonesia set for polls

Most polls show incumbent Indonesian President Joko Widodo holds a double-digit lead over main rival Prabowo Subianto, a former general. (AP)
Updated 15 April 2019

Muslim-majority Indonesia set for polls

  • Indonesia has more than 190 million voters and 245,000 candidates vying for the presidency, parliament and local positions
  • Most polls show the incumbent Joko Widodo holding a double-digit lead over Prabowo Subianto, a former general

JAKARTA: Dipping their fingers in halal ink to prevent double voting, Indonesians cast their ballots Wednesday in a bitterly contested presidential election, with the main rival to incumbent Joko Widodo already threatening to challenge the result over voter-fraud claims.
The Muslim-majority nation’s biggest-ever polls — with more than 190 million voters and 245,000 candidates vying for the presidency, parliament and local positions — is largely a referendum on Widodo’s infrastructure-driven bid to rev up Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
But, looming in the background, two decades of democratic gains are at risk of being eroded, analysts said, as the military creeps back into civilian life under Widodo, and his trailing rival Prabowo Subianto, a former general, eyes reforms that harken back to the Suharto dictatorship.
If he loses, Subianto’s camp has already warned it will challenge the results over voter-list irregularities.
“It’s high stakes in this election,” said Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We simply don’t know what (Subianto) would do if he won and we don’t know if the institutional constraints in place would contain him.”
Voting starts at 7:00 am local time Wednesday (2200 GMT Tuesday) in easternmost Papua and ends at 1:00 p.m. at the other end of the country in Sumatra.
Ballots will be cast at more than 800,000 polling booths across the volcano-dotted country, from the tip of jungle-clad Sumatra and heavily populated Java island to beach paradise Bali and far-flung Sumbawa.
Voters will punch holes in ballots — to make clear their candidate choice — and then dip a finger in Muslim-approved halal ink, a measure to prevent double-voting in a graft-riddled country where ballot buying is rife.
A series of so-called “quick counts” are expected to give a reliable indication of the presidential winner later Wednesday. Official results are not expected until May.
Most polls show the 57-year-old Widodo holding a double-digit lead over Subianto, 67, setting up a repeat of their 2014 contest, which Widodo won despite an unsuccessful court challenge over his narrow victory.
The race has been punctuated by bitter mudslinging between the two camps, religion-driven identity politics and a slew of fake news online that threatens to sway millions of undecided voters.
Widodo campaigned on his ambitious drive to build roads, airports and other infrastructure, including Jakarta’s first mass-rapid-transit system.
But his rights record has been criticized owing to an uptick in discriminatory attacks on religious and other minorities, including a small LGBT community, as Islamic hard-liners become more vocal in public life.
“(Widodo) has chosen pragmatism over principle on issues of Islamism and pluralism,” said Dave McRae, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute.
Widodo, a practicing Muslim, blunted criticism that he was anti-Islam by appointing influential cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.
But victory for Widodo and Amin — known for his disparaging views toward minorities — could be the latest knock to Indonesia’s reputation for moderate Islam.
“There is a longstanding track record of very conservative views,” Kevin O’Rourke, an Indonesia-based political risk analyst, said of Amin.
“It’s inevitable that will affect policy making.”
Subianto — joined by running mate Sandiaga Uno, a 49-year-old wealthy financier — has run on a fiery nationalist ticket.
He courted Islamic hard-liners, promised a boost to military and defense spending and, taking a page from US President Donald Trump, vowed to put “Indonesia first” as he pledged to review billions of dollars in Chinese investment.
Subianto’s presidential ambitions have long been dogged by strong ties to the Suharto family and a checquered past.
He ordered the abduction of democracy activists as the authoritarian regime collapsed in 1998, and was accused of committing atrocities in East Timor.
Widodo’s own cabinet is stuffed with Suharto-era figures, and he raised eyebrows by agreeing to give civilian government jobs to military brass.
But “there is no grand design for Jokowi to bring back military rule,” Laksmana said.
Subianto, however, is a military man keen to roll back reforms that ushered in direct presidential elections, analysts said.
That has raised questions about what an upset victory for the retired general could mean for a system that is supported by most Indonesians.
“Democracy itself would be very much at stake,” O’Rourke said.
“This is a low probability scenario, but one with very high impact.”
Many Indonesians just want a peaceful power transition — regardless of the winner.
“I hope there’s no hostility,” said 53-year-old Untung Sri Rejeki.
“No matter who becomes our next president.”

Australians protest as bushfire haze sparks health fears

Updated 13 min 38 sec ago

Australians protest as bushfire haze sparks health fears

  • Many of the protesters voiced anger at the government’s silence in the face of the crisis
  • Police estimated the crowd size at 15,000, organizers put the figure at 20,000
SYDNEY: Up to 20,000 protesters rallied in Sydney on Wednesday demanding urgent climate action from Australia’s government, as bushfire smoke choking the city caused health problems to spike.

Sydney has endured weeks bathed in toxic smoke as hundreds of blazes have raged across the countryside, with hospitals recording a 25 percent increase in the number of people visiting emergency departments last week.

On Tuesday smoke alarms rang out across Australia’s biggest city, with thick haze triggering smoke alarms and forcing buildings to be evacuated, school children to be kept indoors, and ferries to be canceled.

The devastating fires have focused attention on climate change, with scientists saying the blazes have come earlier and with more intensity than usual due to global warming and a prolonged drought.

Police estimated the crowd size at 15,000, organizers put the figure at 20,000.

Many of the protesters voiced anger at the government’s silence in the face of the crisis.

“The country is on fire” said 26-year-old Samuel Wilkie attending his first climate protest. He described politicians’ response as “pathetic.”

“Our government is not doing anything about it,” said 29-year-old landscape gardener Zara Zoe. “No one is listening, no one is doing anything.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison — a staunch backer of Australia’s vast coal industry — has said little about the smoke since the crisis began, preferring to focus on fire-hit rural communities.

Organizer Chloe Rafferty said that had created anger at the conservative government’s inaction.

“I think the wider public can see that we are not expecting the climate crisis in the future but we are facing the climate crisis now,” she told AFP.

“People are experiencing it in their day-to-day lives.”

As well as a rise in people visiting hospitals with smoke-related health symptoms, the number of emergency calls for ambulances spiked 30 percent last week.

“For most people, smoke causes mild symptoms like sore eyes, nose and throat,” top health department official Richard Broome said.

“However, people with conditions like asthma, emphysema and angina are at greater risk because the smoke can trigger their symptoms.”

Smoke from bushfires is one of the biggest contributors to air pollution in Australia, releasing fine particles that can lodge deep within people’s lungs and cause
“severe” health impacts over time, according to scientist Mick Meyer from government-funded scientific research agency CSIRO.

“The impact of smoke on people remote from the fires may, on occasion, substantially exceed the direct injury to people within the fire zone,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“But we currently lack the operational tools to understand the extent of these impacts or to manage them.”

Six people have been killed and more than 700 houses destroyed in bushfires this fire season.

Though the human toll has been far lower than the deadliest fire season in 2009 — when almost 200 people died — the scale of this year’s devastation has been widely described as unprecedented.

Three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has been burnt — the size of some small countries — and vast swathes of koala habitat scorched.

Official data shows 2019 is on track to be one of the hottest and driest years on record in Australia.