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Jokowi, Prabowo taking protectionist stance

AS the campaign to become Indonesia's second directly elected president enters its final month, neither candidate is budging from the protectionist policies of the outgoing government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a contest that appears heavy on rumour and light on substance.

In recent weeks, both the frontrunner, Jakarta Governor Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, the nominee of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and his rival, former general Prabowo Subianto, have said that if elected they will retain the country's ban on raw mineral ore exports, discourage reliance on foreign capital, emphasise food self-sufficiency and wind back fuel subsidies that gobble up a fifth of the national budget.

The country goes to the polls on July 9.

But as economic growth slows and a budget deficit crisis looms, frustrations are growing that the candidates are distracted by mudslinging and not focusing enough on policy.

Growth will likely slow to 5.3 per cent this year, according to the World Bank, compared with an average 5.8 per cent for the past decade.

"The debate so far is not about policy; it's about character," Raden Pardede, vice-chairman of the National Economic Council, told media in Jakarta last week. "Any measures we've heard so far are a wish list with no detail how it would be achieved."

Both sides in recent days have released manifestos that almost mirror the other. The plans emphasise state-sponsored infrastructure spending and limit the role of foreign capital. Both sides have said that they will maintain the mineral ore export ban and steep taxes on overseas cargoes, even as some of the country's biggest mining companies say that they are suspending operations as the measure violates their contracts.

Newmont Mining Corp last week declared force majeur because of export taxes on copper concentrate that will ratchet up from 25 per cent to 60 per cent by 2016, allowing it to back out of supply contracts.

Hopes abound that after the campaign, the winner will back away from the nationalistic rhetoric and adopt more pragmatic views as foreign direct investment dries up, making it tougher to fund yawning current and fiscal deficits.

"There's no upside to backing away from populism for either candidate," said a senior investment banker attending a speech by Mr Prabowo's chief economic adviser and brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, in Jakarta.

"Cooler heads will prevail after the elections," the banker said, asking for anonymity because his bank doesn't allow him to speak to the media.

In April, Mr Yudhoyono ordered some 100 trillion rupiah (S$10.62 billion) from the central government to offset the surging cost of fuel subsidies.

Failure to act will blow out the fiscal deficit to 4.2 per cent of GDP by the end of the year, Dr Pardede said last week.

That gap would exceed the 3 per cent legal ceiling, that can trigger a vote of no-confidence in the president by the House of Representatives.

"They have no choice," said Fauzi Ichsan, senior economist and head of government relations with Standard Chartered. "The government will need private investors."

While Mr Prabowo appears to have closed the gap in support, the contest remains "Widodo's to lose", Mr Ichsan said.

A poll by the Populi Centre, which most accurately forecast the results of the April 9 parliamentary elections, gave Mr Widodo and his running mate, former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, the support of 48 per cent of respondents to Mr Prabowo's 36 per cent, with 16 per cent undecided. Mr Prabowo is running with former coordinating minister for economic affairs in the Yudhoyono cabinet, Hatta Rajasa.

Mr Widodo's sliding popularity has taken many by surprise after months of polls that favoured him as much as two to one over any rival.

The narrowing gap can be blamed, in part, on a smear campaign circulating on social media and in Islamic boarding schools that Mr Widodo was formerly a Christian who is bent on scaling back Islam's influence in a nation where 90 per cent of the population is Muslim. Mr Widodo was late to hit back, saying that he went on the Haj pilgrimage in 2003.