The most bitterly contested election in Indonesia’s history has concluded with both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, declaring victory on the basis of quick counts. The country will remain in electoral limbo until official results are announced (after 20 July) and perhaps longer, if the loser contests the outcome in the constitutional courts.

These are no ordinary elections. Indonesia’s 250 million citizens make it the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and also the third-largest democracy. The 9 July polls were the archipelago’s third direct presidential elections since the 1998 downfall of the military dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades.

The political contest has pitted the old establishment against a new breed of leader who derives support from the grassroots.

Representing the former, Prabowo Subianto is a former general, thoroughly entrenched in established institutional power structures. A former son-in-law of Suharto, he was the head of the military’s Special Forces in the years before the dictator’s downfall. These were controversial years for the Indonesian government, including accusations of human rights violations.

Prabowo was dismissed from the army, but has reinvented himself in the intervening years as a player in Indonesia’s rambunctious democratic political game. Backed by his billionaire businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo has floated his own political party, Gerindra. With ample financial resources at its disposal and the support of an array of other political groupings, including the majority of Indonesia’s Islamic parties, Prabowo has run a formidable election campaign.

His tough talk harks back, if only implicitly, to the “order” of the Suharto regime. His appeal has been in his image as a strongman capable of ridding Indonesia of its “weaknesses”. Prabowo’s sense of the theatrical is acute. He has been known to helicopter into sports stadiums full of bussed-in supporters and ride around on muscular horses. He lives on a lavish estate outside Jakarta and has a love of luxury cars.

Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is universally called, is of a radically different background, style and temperament. He is a genuine political outsider who, in a short span of time, has risen from obscurity to political superstardom, cresting a wave of anti-corruption sentiment.

The son of a carpenter, Jokowi was a furniture seller before entering the political fray in 2005. He began his career as mayor of a medium-size city, Solo, and was eventually elected as governor of the nation’s capital, Jakarta, in 2012. With his slight build and air of humility, Jokowi eschews fancy cars and security details. He likes to walk around public markets and squares listening to people’s concerns first-hand. He is a proven consensus builder with a penchant for supporting small-scale businesses.

Prabowo’s relentless campaigning, backed by a digital media that has largely supported him, had helped the former general to narrow what was once a formidable 30-point lead held by Jokowi. In the weeks before the election, the Jokowi lead had narrowed to single digits. The upward momentum of the financially flush Prabowo camp and its formidable array of allies, combined with the descending fortunes of Jokowi, meant that by election day things had become too close to call.

Jokowi was the first to declare victory on the basis of several quick counts, conducted by reliable pollsters that gave him a 3-5% victory. However, within a couple of hours Prabowo announced that he was ahead by a similar margin, citing the quick-count results of pollsters known to be close to his camp.

The importance of the final result does not lie so much in the policy differences espoused by the candidates. These are in fact far from radically divergent. Both Jokowi and Prabowo have expressed similar beliefs in economic nationalism and protectionism. Both have promised to address endemic corruption and fix the nation’s creaky infrastructure. Jokowi is more of a reformer with a natural empathy for small and medium enterprises, while Prabowo is a defender of the status quo, whose natural leanings are with big business.

The fact is that the challenges facing Indonesia are not susceptible to a quick fix. And since neither Gerindra nor the PDI-P (the party that backs Jokowi) was able to secure a sufficient majority in the legislative elections held earlier this year, there will be a coalition at the centre regardless of the electoral outcome. As a result, both candidates’ room for policy manoeuvre is likely to be constrained, militating against any dramatic policy shifts.

But the symbolism of the results is of enormous significance, for the region and for new democracies everywhere. Democracies in Asia have largely been afflicted by the same cast of characters in their political narratives: dynastic heirs, military strongmen, corporate tycoons and religious hardliners.

A Prabowo victory will merely signal business as usual. After all, those with money and establishment connections tend to emerge victorious. A Jokowi victory, on the other hand, will indicate the possibility of renewal via the democratic process even in large, poor, not particularly well educated countries.

If Jokowi becomes the president of South-East Asia’s largest economy, it will be a resounding refutation of China’s insistence that authoritarianism is the only viable path for populous, poor nations; it will represent hope for other emerging democracies, such as Myanmar; and it will be a wake-up call for established democracies like India.

The fact that a candidate such as Jokowi has a real shot at the presidency is a credit to Indonesia. After all, in India, even 67 years of democracy have failed to throw up a comparable candidate despite an electorate increasingly disenchanted with the old political guard.

Moreover, the fact that PDI-P nominated Jokowi as a candidate can also offer pointers to other parties struggling to outgrow their dynastic roots. The PDI-P has hitherto been controlled by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the scion of independent Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno.  Although initially loath to give up family control of the party, Megawati was eventually compelled by Jokowi’s enormous popularity to nominate him as the party’s presidential candidate.

Given that the key political question confronting India is whether or not the National Congress Party will be able to outgrow the influence of dynasty, these developments in Indonesia are full of significance.

The next few days will be tense, as Indonesia draws in a collective breath while awaiting the official results. The rest of the world cannot afford to be indifferent. Jokowi is often referred to as Indonesia’s Barack Obama. Before long, other countries in the region (and beyond) may be on the lookout for their own versions of Jokowi.

Author: Pallavi Aiyar is the Southeast Asia correspondent for India’s The Hindu and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: Villagers line up to vote during the country’s presidential election at Bojong Koneng polling station in Bogor, Indonesia, July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta