Indonesia votes as ‘everyman’ president battles firebrand ex-general

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JAKARTA: Across 17,000 islands, from the jungles of Borneo to the slums of Jakarta, millions of Indonesians were going to the polls Wednesday in one of the world‘s biggest exercises in democracy.

Horses, elephants, motorbikes, boats and planes have been pressed into service to get ballot boxes out across the vast archipelago.

More than 190 million voters are choosing between an incumbent president lauded for his infrastructure projects and a fiery nationalist with links to a brutal dictatorship.

The call to prayer rang out across the 4,800 kilometre-long country, where almost 90 per cent of the population are Muslim, as voting began at first light in restive Papua province in the east.

The campaign has been punctuated by bitter mudslinging and a slew of fake news online — much directed at the presidential contenders — that threatens to sway millions of undecided voters.

Leading in the polls, President Joko Widodo, 57, has pointed to his ambitious drive to build much-needed roads, airports and other infrastructure across Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

But Widodo, a political outsider with an everyman personality when he swept to victory in 2014, has seen his rights record criticised owing to an uptick in discriminatory attacks on religious and other minorities, including a small LGBT community, as Islamic hardliners become more vocal in public life.

His choice of conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate has also raised fears about the future of Indonesia´s reputation for moderate Islam.

Widodo — a practising Muslim who has battled doubts about his piety — jetted to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, for a brief, pre-election pilgrimage Sunday.

“There’s clearly less enthusiasm for Widodo now,” said Kevin O’Rourke, an Indonesia-based political risk analyst.

“His popularity is still up there… but he is not the inspiring figure that he was five years ago.”

‘Indonesia First’

Raised in a bamboo shack in a riverside slum, the soft-spoken Widodo stands in stark contrast to rival Prabowo Subianto, 67, a strongman who has courted Islamic hardliners and promised a boost to military and defence spending.

Echoing US President Donald Trump, he has also vowed to put “Indonesia first” by reviewing billions of dollars in Chinese investment.