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White doves symbolise start to ‘peaceful’ Indonesia election race between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto

Some 186 million voters are expected go to the polls on April 17, in an election which will also decide members of national and local parliaments

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 2:25pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 9:21pm

Campaigning for Indonesia’s presidential election officially began Sunday with the two contenders releasing white doves and vowing a peaceful race as concerns simmer the campaign will sharpen religious and ethnic divides.

The election due in April pits incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo against former general and ultranationalist Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Widodo in 2014.

Dressed in traditional clothing, the candidates and their running mates paraded through central Jakarta on Sunday and released doves at a ceremony after reading out a peaceful campaign declaration.

The 2014 presidential election was marred by dirty campaigning and wild internet rumours that Jokowi was a secret communist and of Chinese background, accusations often used in Indonesia to discredit or intimidate political opponents.

Jokowi, the first Indonesian president from outside the country’s political and military elite, has picked conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, aiming to neutralise criticism that he is insufficiently Muslim.

He has a big but not unassailable lead over Prabowo in polls and Indonesia’s recent hosting of the Asian Games further burnished his image.

With a population of more than 260 million, Muslim majority Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the US.

The country’s image as a moderate Muslim nation has been undermined by flaring intolerance in the past several years, from the imprisonment of Jakarta’s Christian governor, who was a Widodo ally, for blasphemy to the canings of gay men in Aceh, a province that practices sharia law.

Most of Widodo’s five-year term has been spent balancing the demands of his moderate base, powerful Islamic conservatives, a complicated parliamentary coalition and the military, which has never completely accepted its diminished role following the end of the Suharto dictatorship two decades ago.

Upgrading Indonesia’s creaking infrastructure has been his signature policy but progress is uneven and many Indonesians still yearn for the strongman type leadership represented by Suharto era figures such as Prabowo.

The first major survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) after candidate registration closed showed Widodo and Amin with 52 per cent support ahead of Prabowo running mate, former deputy Jakarta governor Sandiaga Uno, on 30 per cent.

Widodo had a similar level of backing at the start of campaigning in 2014, only to watch the gap shrink dramatically as polling day neared.

Pundits say Widodo, who has hired billionaire Inter Milan chairman Erick Thohir as his campaign manager, is most vulnerable when it comes to the economy and inequality.

“The opposition will use economic issues in their campaigns, including foreign debt and foreign control of natural resources,” said Syamsuddin Haris, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

Indonesia’s currency has slumped in recent weeks, falling to levels not seen since the country was embroiled in a region-wide financial crisis that sparked economic ruin and the street protests that led to the downfall of Suharto.

Claims of economic mismanagement, along with outright character assassination, are expected to be amplified by viral social media and fake news campaigns.

Widodo has been dogged for years by misleading hoaxes that he is ethnic Chinese, a Christian, and a member of Indonesia’s outlawed communist party.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse