Leave the right way.                                                                                            Photographer: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Leave the right way.                                                                                            Photographer: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Is Indonesia about to experience its own hanging-chad moment?

The 2000 ballot melodrama in Florida pitting George W. Bush against Al Gore may seem like a lifetime ago and a world away from Indonesia. But the country of 250 million people is bracing for an election-result battle that could lead to prolonged legal challenges, mass protests and doubts about democratic legitimacy that could set back Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

Suharto-era general Prabowo Subianto isn't buying early counts pointing to a victory for Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who's known was Jokowi. A sample of vote-counting by pollsters (which have proved accurate in elections for 10 years now) shows Jokowi won by between two to six percentage points. Prabowo claims tallies from companies that canvass for him show he won the July 9 contest. The onus is now on the General Elections Commission's seven members to do a more credible job than Florida in determining the true victor.

Indonesia’s Nationalism

That's just the problem in a nation struggling to move beyond the rampant graft, opacity and backroom dealing 16 years after the ouster of dictator Suharto, who for a time was Prabowo's father-in-law. The solution? Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must step up and ensure the ballot recount is fair, open and beyond reproach. A firm and transparent display of leadership -- including naming some respected election observers -- would crown his legacy as a reformer. Letting this critical moment descend into farce and dysfunction would tarnish that reputation -- and Indonesia's, too.

Yudhoyono, himself a former general, turned Indonesia away from the failed-state trajectory Suharto placed it on during 32 years in power. His own transformation began in 2004, six years after massive demonstrations forced out Suharto. He surrounded himself with capable technocrats, reined in the powerful military, clamped down on corruption, tamped down Islamic extremism and repaired the national balance sheet enough to win investment-grade ratings from Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investors Service.

Although Yudhoyono's second term that began in 2009 has been less impressive, he solidified Indonesian democracy and remains generally well-liked. He risks losing all if he allows this vote to be subverted, bought or cast in doubt in any significant way. It isn't a reach to say that this election is turning into more of a test for Yudhoyono than for Prabowo or Jokowi.

Yudhoyono is clearly setting himself up as a regional thought leader when he leaves office in October. In recent years, he's made a point of rubbing shoulders with the Davos set, penning op-eds for newspapers around the globe and speaking out on everything from income inequality to events in the Middle East to Myanmar's Muslim Rohingha minority. Asia could use an elder statesman of Yudhoyono's caliber. Not since Lee Kuan Yew's heyday in Singapore has Asia had a charismatic spokesman for the region's aspirations and priorities.

But before Yudhoyono can be a regional power broker, he must avoid botching the succession at home. In the twilight of his presidency, Yudhoyono has looked indecisive and, at times, forlorn, as corruption charges implicate some of his own Democratic Party's top officials. He also faces a perception problem for supporting Prabowo over the fresh-faced Jokowi, who would be the first leader without direct ties to the Suharto kleptocracy from which Indonesia is still recovering.

It's telling that a majority of the roughly 140 million votes cast appear to have gone to the political outsider. Jokowi's focus is on cutting the red tape that breeds inefficiency and fuels corruption. He favors empowering small business owners and entrepreneurs over the tycoons pining for the bad old days of crony capitalism. It may sound like small beer, but Jokowi's moves to simplify the process of procuring business permits and licenses in Jakarta since October 2012 sent shock waves through the political establishment.

The priority for Indonesia's next leader isn't flexing muscles or pounding podiums -- something at which Prabowo excels -- but strengthening government institutions. The best way to do that is by recruiting political outsiders to oversee ministries and the chronically corrupt bureaucracies that dominate them. Only by tapping talent outside the Suharto universe can Indonesia make its government more attuned to the needs of the tens of millions living in abject poverty.

The election commission is expected to announce its official count July 21-22. It's up to Yudhoyono to safeguard the process from meddling and hanging-chad ballot controversies of the Bush-Gore variety. Opportunities for shenanigans abound, given Indonesia's geographic expanse -- it's an archipelago of 17,000 islands -- and the fact it’s only been a democracy for 16 years and faces a steep technological learning curve.

If Yudhoyono manages to ensure that the vote was fair and credible, he has the opportunity to become an international statesman. If he sits back and allows Prabowo to steal this election, protests will flare up and history may remember Yudhoyono as little more than a holdover from Suharto's clique. He alone can stop that. The question is, will he?

To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.