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Indonesia election fever spurs people to vote

Saturday - 4/5/2014, 5:52am  ET

In this Sunday, March 16, 2014 photo, Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures during a campaign rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, known affectionately as Jokowi, has attracted legions of supporters, especially among the young, igniting the same type of hunger for change that galvanized many previously apathetic American voters to turn out for Barack Obama in 2008. The soft-spoken former furniture producer wears simple button-down shirts with no tie or jacket and has developed a reputation of getting up close and personal with the capital’s poor, from wading into floodwaters to visiting slums. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

NINIEK KARMINI
Associated Press

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Doni Wilson, a 38-year-old Jakarta taxi driver, has voted only once in his life and swore he'd never do it again after feeling a huge letdown by Indonesia's current president.

But he's changed his mind after being gripped by a fever that has energized many previous non-voters to head to the polls Wednesday and cast their ballots in legislative elections, mainly to try to boost the chances for the country's most popular politician to become president.

Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, known affectionately as Jokowi, has attracted legions of supporters, especially among the young, igniting the same type of hunger for change that galvanized many previously apathetic American voters to turn out for Barack Obama in 2008. The soft-spoken former furniture producer wears simple button-down shirts with no tie or jacket and has developed a reputation of getting up close and personal with the capital's poor, from wading into floodwaters to visiting slums.

Many consider Widodo a shoo-in for the presidency -- he was leading opinion polls months before his nomination was announced in March -- but his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle first needs to win 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives for him to enter the presidential race. Otherwise, a coalition must be formed with one or more parties to put candidates forward for the July 9 election.

"His presence has brought fresh air and new hope for a better Indonesia," Wilson said. "I will vote for him because he is a good leader and we have to support him."

About 200,000 candidates will compete for more than 19,000 slots in Wednesday's elections. In addition to voting for the House, Indonesians will also elect a regional representative council that advises the government and local legislative councils.

It's a huge feat for a vast archipelago of 17,000 islands that became a democracy only 15 years ago after holding its first free elections following three decades of brutal dictatorship that ended when strongman Suharto was overthrown in 1998. Indonesia, home to more than 240 million people, is the world's most populous Muslim nation and the third-largest democracy after India and the United States.

But even though this year marks only the fourth time Indonesians have had the opportunity to pick their leaders, encouraging voters to visit the polls remains a challenge amid cronyism, money laundering and rampant corruption scandals ensnaring even politicians once largely believed to be clean.

Analysts say getting young people excited about the election is an even bigger challenge, especially with Twitter and Facebook exploding with negative comments about candidates in one of the world's biggest users of social media.

Of the 53 million to 60 million young voters, about half are considered golput, or abstainers, said Election Supervisory Committee member Nasrullah, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

But Widodo's down-to-earth approach as an outsider who's not connected to old-school politics has attracted a storm of attention. Many young voters are perceived to be drawn to this so-called Jokowi effect, which could drive voter participation up 5 percent in the legislative elections, said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesian Science Institute, adding that overall turnout is expected to be as high as 80 percent. It was 71 percent in 2009 elections.

"He is a fresh face among the well-worn politicians, businessmen and controversial military men in public positions," Nusabhakti said. "He offers a distinct appeal to the common man on the street and is also known for championing small people's rights. ... No wonder so many people are keen to support him."

Jokowi's campaign rallies have drawn thousands of flag-waving supporters wearing red shirts with large bull's heads, his party's symbol, though the candidate has appeared more comfortable making impromptu visits to markets and neglected areas of the country.

As mayor of the central Java city of Solo from 2005 to 2012, Widodo turned the city into a regional center for arts and culture that attracted foreign tourists, while instituting reforms to fight corruption. He won re-election with 90 percent of the vote in 2010.

Since taking over as governor of Jakarta, he has raised the minimum wage in the city by 40 percent, to around $230 a month, rolled out a new health insurance program, expanded free schooling for the poor and started construction on a long-awaited subway line.

Widodo's party, chaired by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of founding President Sukarno, has topped most opinion polls for months as the most electable. His name was formally tossed into the running on March 14.

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