Indonesians will choose in a runoff election on Monday between incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her former chief security minister, both moderate Muslims who have pledged to work with the United States in fighting terrorism.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the first round in July but fell well short of a majority, had a lead of at least 20 percentage points in public opinion polls going into the balloting, tapping widespread discontent over unemployment, rising prices and pervasive corruption.
The two candidates offer voters a similar choice, agreeing on many policies and sharing close ties to the country's powerful military. But the prospect of a peaceful change of government in Indonesia is a notable achievement following the country's history of authoritarian rule.
Criticized for her apparent aloofness, Megawati has overhauled her campaign at the urging of advisers, taking advantage of the incumbency to travel the archipelago to stump with farmers, students, artists and local merchants. The effort helped her chip away at Yudhoyono's lead, which dropped from as much as 32 points in polls earlier this month.
The final weeks of the campaign, however, have been lackluster. The national election commission, fearing violence between rival camps, banned the outdoor rallies and parades that are a traditional feature of Indonesian elections.
Official campaigning for the runoff was limited to three days last week. Public attention focused largely on three nights of televised discussions in which experts quizzed candidates separately about their policies. A proposal for a debate was shelved after Megawati, who is known to be uncomfortable in unscripted settings, objected to the format.
Despite the low-key conclusion to the contest, business in campaign caps, shirts and other paraphernalia has remained brisk at Uci Missusita's shop deep inside Jakarta's Pasar Senen market. Missusita, 24, said the store nearly doubled its hours in recent months to handle the demand, particularly for Megawati items. Stacked high on the floor Sunday were white T-shirts adorned with pictures of the president and her vice presidential running mate. But as a campaign worker stuffed them into a large plastic bag for distribution, Missusita, wearing a black head scarf, said she backed Yudhoyono.
"I think Megawati's presidency has failed, so why should I keep supporting her?" she said. "I see a lot of unemployment, and there's no solution. She's made a lot of promises, but they are only promises."
Two aisles away, Ng Seng Nyam, 65, sat inside his stuffy shoe stall and said he could no longer back Megawati despite her earlier role as a rallying symbol for opponents of former president Suharto, whose autocratic administration, dubbed the New Order, was toppled in 1998 following mass protests.
"She had been repressed by the New Order and became a representative of its victims," Ng said. "But after three years of her administration, the economy is getting worse, corruption continues and school fees are getting more expensive."
Megawati worked hard to assemble a coalition of political parties in support of her candidacy and even forged a formal alliance with Suharto's Golkar party, which has reemerged as the largest in parliament. Opinion surveys have indicated, however, that voters aligned with most major parties back Yudhoyono regardless of the official endorsements.
Megawati's advisers said they were counting in part on lingering affection for her, especially in the countryside, as the daughter of Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno. Yudhoyono has sought to portray himself as a cautious reformer, though some critics have called him more indecisive than cautious and alleged that his campaign team was drawn heavily from Suharto's military.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, but religion played only a minor role in the campaign. Megawati has donned a head scarf in some advertisements, and both candidates have visited Mecca in recent months.
But even after a car bombing outside the Australian Embassy this month that police attributed to Muslim militants, voters remained far less concerned about links between religion and extremist violence than about the daily struggle to make ends meet, according to opinion surveys and interviews.
Indonesia's economy, which grew at a rate of 4.1 percent last year, has failed to keep up with the demand for employment as millions of new job seekers enter the labor market.