President Joko Widodo speaks at a campaign rally at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta on Saturday. Indonesia heads to the polls on Wednesday. (Widodo S Jusuf/Antara Foto/Reuters)

On a scorching day in Indonesia’s capital last week, thousands of people gathered in a cavernous stadium for a campaign rally that more closely resembled a rock concert.

Their chants filled the air, and whenever their sloganeering stopped, dozens of bands and performers stepped in. They all had one name in mind: Jokowi, the universally used nickname for President Joko Widodo. 

“I’m voting for the candidate that I’m sure of,” said one supporter, 50-year-old Hadi Wijaya. He had been waiting more than five hours for Widodo to take the stage Saturday in his last rally before the country’s 193 million eligible voters go to the polls. When Widodo finally appeared, the crowd erupted with cheers. 

Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, will vote Wednesday in presidential and legislative elections, casting ballots at 800,000 polling stations set up across an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. 

The electric atmosphere in Jakarta and his lead in polls, though, mask a more daunting reality for Widodo, a furniture salesman who rose to political stardom to clinch the presidency in 2014 on the promise of reform and hope — drawing comparisons to President Barack Obama. 

As Widodo seeks reelection, again facing retired Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, analysts warn that enthusiasm for the incumbent has somewhat faded, making the race potentially tighter than widely assumed. 

And even if he pulls through, Widodo will have to contend with a powerful force in Indonesian politics that has grown stronger: Islamic conservatism. 

“Islam is going to be a far more important player in the near future of Indonesian politics,” said Alexander R. Arifianto, team leader of an Indonesia elections research project at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The question is whether it’s going to be more gradual or subtle, which will happen if Jokowi gets reelected,” or dramatic, in the event that his rival wins. 

Five years ago, Widodo won by a margin of six percentage points. His ascent to the presidency
was attributed to young, liberal
and religious-minority supporters, who came out in droves to rally behind a political outsider from a middle-class background.

Indonesia held its first direct presidential election in 2004, six years after the bloody toppling of a decades-long authoritarian regime. The winner, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spent a decade at the helm. The ghost of cronyism and corruption remained, however, and Widodo was regarded as a breath of fresh air in Indonesian politics when he took office five years ago. 

But sharp religious and ethnic divisions in the country have come to the fore since the 2017 jailing of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and a Christian — a double minority in a Muslim-majority country. His supposed offense, a quip about the Koran during a campaign speech, cost him a second term as governor. His remark, a doctored video of which was widely shared online, stoked mass protests and galvanized conservative Islamic forces. 

Purnama — whose nickname is Ahok — was elected vice governor under Widodo in 2012. After Widodo was elected president in 2014 and gave up the governorship, Purnama was elevated to the post for the remainder of Widodo’s term. When Purnama was released from prison in January, Widodo told reporters he would “let Ahok do what he wants.” 

Widodo has picked former cleric Maruf Amin as his running mate. Amin is a polarizing figure who has made disparaging comments about minority groups, such as calling Indonesia’s LGBT community “haram,” or forbidden by Islamic law, and urging a ban on activities of the Ahmadiyya movement, which conservative Muslim leaders believe deviates from the norms of Islam.

“I think [Widodo] took a cue from the Ahok case. He’s a lot more concerned with [identity politics] than he was five years ago,” said Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. Still, he notes that Widodo has put “Maruf in a spot where he doesn’t speak much,” and he considers the choice a symbolic move intended to sway conservatives.

The choice of Maruf nevertheless has disillusioned some of Widodo’s original base. Widely disappointed by his human rights record, some of these voters are choosing to abstain — an act known in Indonesia as “golput” for the white part of the ballot — to signal their dissatisfaction.

“Five years ago, Jokowi was able to prevail over Prabowo, who back then also had some Islamic elements backing him, because of this support from the coalition of young people, liberals and a lot of women and non-Muslim voters,” said Arifianto at the Rajaratnam School. “Some of them might decide to go golput, and this is his core group of supporters.”

Prabowo’s populist platform is tailored to conservative Muslims and nationalists. At a recent rally, according to Reuters, the 67-year-old declared that the Indonesian “motherland is being raped,” rhetoric that has drawn comparisons to President Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Prabowo’s economic plans also reflect his nationalist posture. He has spoken of lowering taxes and curbing imports. In November, he told reporters he wants to make Indonesia “a self-sustaining country in terms of energy and food,” declaring that the country “will not import anything” if he becomes president. Prabowo has also attacked his opponent’s focus on infrastructure and has promised to end growing inequality

Some polls show Widodo with a 20-point lead over Prabowo, but others show the gap closing. Prabowo has begun alluding to the prospect of electoral fraud and has urged supporters to launch protests if they see irregularities.

“It’s going to be close,” Arifianto said.