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 in his last rally before the country's 193 million eligible voters go to the polls. When Widodo finally made an appearance, the crowd erupted with cheers.

Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, votes today in presidential and legislative elections, with 800,000 polling stations set up across the hundreds of islands that make up the country.


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.

As Widodo seeks re-election, again facing former general 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, who heads the Indonesia programme 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 re-elected," or dramatic, in the event that his rival wins.

Five years ago, Widodo won by a margin of 6 per cent. His ascent to the presidency was credited 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 the 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 offence, 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 galvanised conservative Islamic forces.

Purnama — also known by the nickname Ahok — was Widodo's vice-governor when he took the gubernatorial seat in 2012; when Widodo left to run for the presidency, Purnama was elevated to the governorship. When Purnama was released from prison in January, Widodo told reporters that he would "let Ahok do what he wants".

Widodo has picked former cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate in today's vote. Amin is a polarising 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 Islamic movement, which conservative Muslim leaders believe deviates from the norms of Islam.

This has left some of Widodo's original base disillusioned. 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.

Some recent 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 his supporters to launch protests if they see foul play.