Indonesia's basketball-loving VP contender keeps 'eye on the ball' of economic reform

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A love for running marathons and playing basketball is already making Sandiaga Uno, the Indonesian opposition’s contender for VP in next year’s presidential race, a hit both offline and on social media.

Indonesian vice president candidate Sandiaga Uno gestures as he walks in front of his house in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 26, 2018. Picture taken September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

The 49-year-old private equity executive, running mate to retired military general Prabowo Subianto, plans to use this popularity to tackle issues weighing on Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, including a plunging currency and “unnecessary” government spending.

The pair are up against the popular incumbent Joko Widodo in the race to lead the world’s third-largest democracy. Both sides are pushing a nationalistic economic agenda, but issues of religion and ethnicity are expected to feature prominently in the six-month campaign.

Dressed in a breezy stub-collared, pale blue shirt, khaki pants, with thick-rimmed glasses and sandals, Uno cuts a starkly different image from Widodo’s running mate - a septuagenarian conservative Muslim cleric - and one that has proved popular with young voters and female voters.

“Millennials are flaky and we have a tough task in convincing them,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in a leafy residential neighborhood in central Jakarta.

“We need to bring relevant issues that are attractive enough for millennials so they show up to vote.”

The opposition has zeroed in on a 9 percent plunge in the rupiah this year to highlight what Uno called an “absence of strong government”.

“We are going into turbulent economic times... We need strong leaders with a firm grip on issues like jobs and prices,” Uno said.

“We need to send the right signals to the domestic scene and the outside world that Indonesia is taking control of its own economy.”

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Opinion polls give Widodo a double-digit lead over Prabowo, but some show the gap narrowing.

Criticizing a cornerstone of Widodo’s term, which has seen a building boom of roads, airports, railways and a dramatic slashing of red tape, Uno said Prabowo would roll out “deep structural reforms” with spending cuts, tax reform, and giving the private sector a bigger share of infrastructure development.

“What we need is smaller...stronger government,” he said.

He added that he and Prabowo would prioritize job creation, investment and export industries if voted into office.

Prabowo and Uno hail from elite military and business circles respectively, but neither has an extended track record in elected office, save Uno’s past 10 months as deputy governor of Jakarta.

Uno won that position after a controversial race that opened up deep religious and ethnic divisions in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. His team, which was backed by Prabowo, was seen as riding a wave of mass Islamist protests that brought down Jakarta’s then governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian.

Both Prabowo and Uno maintain links with hardline Islamist groups, some of whom have been known to intimidate minorities.

Rights activists have raised concerns about a recent rise of hardline Islamism that they say threatens Indonesia’s long-standing reputation for pluralism and tolerance for minority religions and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. But LGBT rights are unlikely to feature prominently in the campaign.

Uno said his side would maintain a focus on economic issues and was unlikely to be influenced by conservative Islamic groups.

“We have big data to show people are tired of divisive campaigns,” he said. “We think people will vote based on economic issues... We don’t want to take our eyes off the ball.”

Editing by Nick Macfie