While President Barack Obama was accused of being a Kenyan-born Muslim before being elected, in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, presidential frontrunner Joko Widodo has been branded an ethnic Chinese Christian.
Smear campaigns have escalated ahead of next Wednesday’s election, with the candidates’ supporters playing dirty to control the messages swirling in the media, a trend commentators say has contributed to a steep fall in support for Widodo.
In another attack, a senior official from the party of Prabowo Subianto, the only other contender, suggested on Twitter Widodo was a communist, playing on fears that linger from the era of dictator Suharto, who demonised the far-left.
While Widodo – known by his nickname Jokowi – has borne the brunt of the attacks, Prabowo has also been targeted.
He has been labelled a psychopath, and a YouTube video of the infamously hot-headed ex-general punching someone at an election rally went viral, even though it appeared to have been doctored.
Most of these allegations have been denied or proven to be false, but in a social media-mad country where rumours spread fast on the internet, they appear to be having an impact, commentators say.
“I’m very afraid that the outcome of the election is not going to be based on informed votes, because smear campaigns are having an impact on voters,” Endy Bayuni, senior editor at the English-language daily Jakarta Post, said at a recent panel discussion.
Just a few months ago, Widodo had a massive 30 percentage point lead on Prabowo, but polls last week showed the gap had dropped to single digits.
In a survey by Indikator Politik Indonesia, 17 per cent of more than 3,000 respondents said they had heard the rumour Widodo was an ethnic Chinese Christian, and 37 per cent of those said they believed it.
Widodo’s team have sought to counter the escalating smear campaigns by highlighting Prabowo’s tainted human rights record – he ordered the abduction of student activists before Suharto’s downfall in 1998.
But Indikator said that this appeared to have had little impact on voters, despite the fact it was true.
The claim about Widodo’s religion and ancestry have been by far the most damaging, as they could alienate Muslim voters and play on long-standing resentment towards the ethnic Chinese community. Widodo vehemently denies the claim.
The rumours were spread predominantly through a new tabloid, Obor Rakyat (The People’s Torch), widely seen as a vehicle for pro-Prabowo propaganda, which was distributed to Islamic boarding schools and mosques on the main island of Java.
Ross Tapsell, an Indonesian media expert at the Australian National University (ANU), said the rumours were “ridiculous” but added: “They get circulated and, particularly in regions of Java, it will be important.”
However, while the smear tactics have undoubtedly hit Widodo’s popularity, observers say Prabowo’s campaign has also been helped by other factors such as his powerful media backers and his huge personal wealth.
Television remains the most influential media in Indonesia, and in this regard Prabowo is clearly leading, with five stations backing him compared to just one for Widodo.
The channels are making their allegiances increasingly clear as the race tightens -- Surya Paloh, head of a political party backing Widodo, appeared recently on his own Metro TV news channel in a farmer’s hat bearing stickers of his chosen candidate.
And Prabowo handed out prizes on the final of popular singing contest Indonesian Idol, aired on a station owned by a member of his coalition.
Prabowo also has greater funds to fight his campaign. Both candidates publicly declared their wealth this week, something required under Indonesian election law, and Prabowo’s US$150 million dwarfed Widodo’s US$2.4 million.
In addition, the 62-year-old has the backing of his billionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo.
The ex-general has also been planning his run for presidency for a long time, and his well-oiled political machine stands in stark contrast to Widodo’s often disorganised campaign, analysts say.
“Jokowi was nominated in March, Prabowo’s been planning this for 10 years,” said ANU’s Tapsell.
“His team members know exactly what they’re doing, while in Jokowi’s team, they’re still arguing about what they should do.”