Jokowi ratchets up election debate with allegation of Russian meddling

[JAKARTA] The question is far from settled despite denials from the Russian embassy in Jakarta and presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto, who say the charge levelled by incumbent leader Joko Widodo is baseless.

Mr Joko, who is seeking re-election in April, fired the first salvo last week, saying a campaign team deployed foreign consultants and resorted to "Russian propaganda" including defamation, lies and hoaxes. While Mr Joko, known as Jokowi, didn't name anyone in particular, Subianto, popularly known as Prabowo, was quick to deny the charges.

Prabowo's campaign team said it regretted the president's insinuation that they'd engaged foreign consultants, while the Russian embassy said the country "in principle doesn't interfere in domestic affairs and electoral processes of any foreign country, including Indonesia, which is our close and important partner."

A photo of Prabowo shaking hands with a delegate from the Russian embassy at his national address last month went viral on social media, suggesting the former general challenging Jokowi was using the services of foreign consultants. Irawan Ronodipuro, a member of Prabowo's campaign team, said the foreigner was only one of the 13 dignitaries from different foreign embassies who attended the event.

Prabowo and his running mate Sandiaga Uno didn't engage any foreign consultants, just young Indonesians educated abroad, Mr Ronodipuro said. He criticised Jokowi for the allegations of Russian interference and for allowing foreign laborers into the country.

"We do not use foreign consultants, whereas they continue to welcome foreign labor into Indonesia. Is there a shortage of domestic labor in Indonesia?," Mr Ronodipuro said in a statement on Tuesday.

The campaign for the April 17 elections has so far been free of any major controversies, with candidates focusing on bread and butter issues like prices of staples, jobs and the economy. While Jokowi enjoys 15-20 percentage points lead over Prabowo in the most recent surveys, both are out to woo about 15 per cent of the undecided voters.

Jokowi, who has been targeted by the opposition for allowing Chinese workers in Indonesian factories and piling up foreign debt to fund his infrastructure agenda, may be embracing a more aggressive campaign style with his attack on Prabowo, according to Noory Okthariza, a political analyst at Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"In the end it is not too important to verify whether the content of the attack is true or false, because what Jokowi and his team want to highlight is an aspect of the US campaign in which Russian intervention is alleged to have benefited Donald Trump," Mr Okthtariza said.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and possible connections to the campaign of President Donald Trump.

Erick Thohir, Jokowi's campaign team chief, on Wednesday defended the president's assertion, saying there is evidence on social media of Prabowo's team engaging foreigners from several countries, including Russia. Mr Thohir didn't answer several phone calls seeking comment.

Indonesia's election supervisory board plans to summon members of Jokowi's campaign team after the president was reported for spreading hoax, reported on Thursday. The Independent Anti Hoax Society & the Bad News Alliance will report Jokowi to the police on Thursday to demand the president present evidence to back up his claim on Russian propaganda, the group said in a statement.

Indonesian voters will need to exercise wisdom and be not carried away by this "battle of perceptions" as both the contestants are likely to intensify attacks as the polling date nears, Mr Okthtariza said.


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