It is going to take a marathon effort – or perhaps even the collapse of the Indonesian economy – for opposition rival Prabowo Subianto to claw back the commanding lead incumbent Joko Widodo appears to have opened up just six months ahead of next April’s presidential election.

The latest poll by the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) shows that if the election was held today, 60.2% of constituents would vote for the president, compared to only 20.7% for Prabowo. It is a gap that appears to be only getting wider.

Despite the yawning margin, Widodo’s problems keep piling up. Indonesia has been hit by two major natural disasters in two months, the rupiah is at its lowest since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis crash, the current account deficit is nudging 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) and foreign investors are still staying away.

His government is also often seen as dysfunctional, evidenced by Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan seemingly taking it on himself to order a recent fuel price increase when everything is being done to cushion voters from rising inflation.

Understanding the reason behind Widodo’s popularity doesn’t require rocket science. Many Indonesians like him for who he is – a skinny, rather ordinary man with few established links to the political and business elite and a genuine interest in the welfare of his fellow citizens.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo waves at an ASEAN summit event at Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Indonesian President Joko Widodo waves at an Asean summit event in the Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Crunch time will come in mid-December, though. That’s when his political advisers believe campaigning will begin in earnest, later than the last race between the same two candidates in 2014, but a sign that this time there is not as much money to throw around.

If past turnouts are any guide, about 70-75% of Indonesia’s 187 million eligible voters are expected to take part in the election, which will be held on the same day as the national legislative polls.

A survey conducted by the Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) shortly after the candidates were officially registered on August 10 saw Widodo leading over Prabowo by a narrower margin – 52.2% to 29.58%, but with more than 18% of the electorate undecided.

With fewer swing voters a month later, the SMRC’s October poll showed that the candidates’ choices of running mates – conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin for Widodo and businessman-politician Sandiaga Uno for Prabowo – appeared to have little overall impact.

Interestingly, an opposition candidate for a legislative seat in North Sumatra, one of only four provinces with a Christian majority, says support for Widodo is “solid” there despite fears his controversial choice of Amin would impact on the way minorities vote.

Indonesian cleric Ma'ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube
Indonesian cleric Ma’ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube

Another distraction for the president are the internal conflicts roiling the Golkar Party, his chief political ally, where party chairman and Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto’s alleged links to a power station graft scandal have put him under increasing pressure to step down.

“Airlangga is unfocused,” says a senior party figure. “He doesn’t go to the regions and there are no weekly meetings. The president is the crucial factor. If he wants him removed, it could happen overnight. He (Widodo) may come from a different party, but this is bottom line politics.”

Widodo played a key role in Airlangga’s election last December, but the minister has struggled to develop a following after being overlooked as Widodo’s running mate and finding himself implicated in what has become a far-reaching bribery investigation.

Removing the chairman can only be done by calling an extraordinary congress, which one Golkar source says would cost 400 billion rupiah (US$26 million) – money that would be more wisely spent on improving the party’s performance in the legislative elections.

On the other side of the coin, the credibility of the Prabowo-Uno ticket has already been hurt by the recent controversy surrounding actress and activist Ratna Sarumpaet, a member of the opposition campaign team who claimed she was beaten up by Widodo’s supporters.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections in front of General Elections Commission (KPU) office, Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho
Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections, Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho

It later turned out that the bruising on her face had been caused by cosmetic surgery, which she was trying to hide from her family. An embarrassed Prabowo was forced to apologize for joining in the uproar, and Sarumpaet is in police custody accused of spreading fake news.

So far, Prabowo has said little about the latest survey or given much away on what strategy he and his team intend to adopt to try and reverse the current trend. “A lot of people are in denial about the poll numbers,” says one opposition politician. “They still think he (Prabowo) has a chance.”

The retired general’s base lies in urban centers with higher living standards and access to the internet, all of which creates a disproportionate amount of noise. Most of Widodo’s support is in the Java heartland and other rural areas where voters are less expectant, but are sensitive to price changes.

Prabowo may be counting on next year’s televised debates when Amin may find himself on the back foot dealing with Uno, a sharp-minded entrepreneur and former deputy Jakarta governor who knows a thing or two about economic management.

Widodo is light on economic experience himself, but while it won’t resonate with less educated voters, he did win high praise from financial leaders for his speech to the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting in Bali, in which he compared the state of the global economy to the popular television series Game of Thrones.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo salutes during the country's 73rd Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace in Jakarta on August 17, 2018.Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo salutes during the country’s 73rd Independence Day celebrations in Jakarta, August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

“… even as the Great Houses are occupied battling with each other, a great threat descends from the North,” he warned, in an apparent reference to the United States and China. “An evil winter, intent on destroying and blanketing the entire world with ice and destruction.”

“As the imminent Evil Winter approaches, they must come to realize that it is unimportant who sits on the Iron Throne. Of more importance is forming a combined force to defeat the Evil Winter and prevent a global disaster and to ensure the world does not become a barren, ravaged land bringing suffering to us all.”

Ironically, the deft speech was written by Indonesian Investment Coordinating Board chairman Thomas Lembong, whose failure to speedily implement a newly revamped one-stop shop for foreign investors resulted in it being moved to the Economic Coordinating Ministry last July.

That was another sign of the president’s impatience with bureaucratic foot-dragging and in particular his concern over the growing trade deficit and a lack of foreign direct investment to inject new life into a sluggish manufacturing sector.

But the Games of Thrones rhetoric was clearly related to the external factors that his ministers blame for many of Indonesia’s current economic woes, including the trade war between the US and China and a series of US Federal Reserve interest rate hikes to prevent over-heating of the American economy.

An earthquake victim salvages useable items near a collapsed mosque in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad
An earthquake victim salvages useable items near a collapsed mosque in Palu, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi, on October 1, 2018. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Widodo cancelled a scheduled appearance at the gala dinner for WB-IMF delegates in Bali, apparently worried how it would look for him to be celebrating when Indonesia is mourning up to 6,000 deaths in the Central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami.

His early departure from Bali may also have had something to do with his government’s flip-flop over an average 7% increase in price-capped premium fuel and diesel, which was announced the night before then overturned an hour later.

Analysts doubt whether Energy Minister Jonan would have made such a politically sensitive decision on his own, particularly after Widodo had told a Cabinet meeting two months ago that there would be no price increases without his approval.

As a former town mayor from Central Java, the president knows better than anyone that it is in the wallet – and not in the wider economy – where elections are won or lost.