Back in 2014, then presidential candidate Joko Widodo’s commanding lead in opinion polls narrowed alarmingly from 15 percentage points to only 2-3% in the final month before an election showdown with rival Prabowo Subianto, who was proving to be a tough and clever campaigner.

In the end, the popular former Jakarta governor won comfortably by a 53.1% to 46.8% margin, riding home to victory on a wave of previously undecided voters. But the near collapse had given his supporters heartburn because his own party had been so ineffectual in getting him across the line.

Five years later, few people are reaching for the blood pressure pills. While the latest Kompas newspaper survey points to Widodo absorbing an eight percent fall since it sampled the electorate last October, other polls suggest that talk of the gap narrowing is just that — talk.

“We’re quite confident,” says a member of Bravo Five, the informal pro-Widodo campaign team formed by Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, which is working the battleground province of West Java. “We think the gap on election day will be about fifteen percent, better than it was in 2014.”

It is difficult to put a finger on what is different this election season. Widodo retains his popularity, but the power of the incumbency is clearly a major factor, particularly when it comes to social spending. Prabowo, for his part, does not seem to have the same energy or enthusiasm as in 2014, while his message remains monotonously the same.

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 on the campaign trail, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho

Even Kompas has Widodo and running mate Ma’ruf Amin leading Prabowo and partner Sandiaga Uno by a 49.2% to 37.4% margin. Two other polls, conducted by Saiful Mujadi Consulting (SMRC) and Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI), put the incumbent in the 57-59% range, representing a 16% to 20% advantage over Prabowo.

That represents between 24 and 30 million votes if the usual average of about 75% of the country’s 190 million eligible voters go to the polls on April 17, when for the first time both the presidential and legislative elections will be held on the same day.

Widodo has a hefty lead in both Central and East Java and looks to be on even terms with Prabowo in West Java, the country’s most populous province which the challenger won by a big margin in 2014. According to the Kompas poll, the president is leading by 51.3 to 34% across the whole main island, leaving 14.7% undecided.

With Java accounting for about 57% of the total votes, that alone should be enough to win Widodo a second term, despite Prabowo taking a healthy 50.5-37% lead in Sumatra, where low commodity prices have dented the government’s popularity.

The other main islands of Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Papua are all firmly in Widodo’s camp, with the president retaining a slender edge in Sulawesi where analysts expect Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) to make significant gains.

Outwardly, Prabowo remains in high spirits and confident of somehow making up the difference. But this time around he has left much of the early campaigning to Uno, the personable, 49-year-old entrepreneur whose engaging manner and boyish good looks are expected to play well with women voters.

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Vice Presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Uno is also assiduously courting the conservative Muslim lobby, especially in West Java where he has made a point of visiting the two Miftahul Huda Muslim boarding schools in Tasikmalaya and Ciamis, which played a key role in the street protests that led to the downfall of Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Purnama.

During the recent vice presidential debate, a painfully deferential Uno bent over backwards not to embarrass Amin, the ageing cleric whose last-hour selection may well have arrested efforts to cast Widodo as un-Islamic, but which has done nothing to win him more votes.

The president and his campaigners have also focused on the boarding schools, known as pesantrens, which aim at deepening knowledge of the Koran but as part of the country’s education system have become important social institutions in rural areas.

Now that campaigning has entered a final three-week period the National Election Commission (KPU) allows the two camps to hold large-scale rallies, but on schedules that ensure supporters from both sides won’t be in close proximity to each other.

Despite the enormous logistical challenges in staging one of the world’s biggest single-day elections, the four democratic-era polls so far have all been staged without serious incident and with only a minimum of irregularities considering the scale of the event.

Most observers believe Prabowo’s greater priority is positioning Gerindra for the next election in 2024, with Uno as a seemingly ready-made and by-then seasoned candidate, but who will be faced in the interim with the challenge of staying in the public eye.

In the legislative election, Gerindra and Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) appear to have sucked most of the oxygen out of the room, leaving many parties struggling to clear the 4% threshold to qualify for representation in Parliament.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017.About 100 local elections took place across Indonesia on February 15 but the race in the capital is the most hotly contested, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin
An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin

Kompas has PDI-P polling at 26.9%, down by three percentage points from October, but still on track to win at least 150 seats. That would be the party’s best showing since the first democratic elections held in 1999, owing largely to the popular Widodo’s sizeable coat tails.

Gerindra, boasting a stronger core of loyalists than any of the other 10 sitting parties, is in second place on 17%, the poll showed. Golkar trails on 9.4%, well adrift of its 14.7% showing in 2014 and the ambitious 18% target set by party chairman and current Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto.

But real political power will lie in the number of seats Golkar wins in the newly-expanded 575-seat House of Representatives — 15 more than in 2014 — boosted perhaps by spoils from the smaller parties which fall short of the 4% threshold.

According to the latest polling, ruling coalition partners United Development (PPP), National Democrat (Nasdem) and People’s Conscience (Hanura), and opposition party National Mandate (PAN), will all fall into that unrepresented losing category.

If they do fail to make the grade on election day, the seats they and four other smaller parties have won will be distributed among the successful parties according to calculations within each electorate and not as part of a national extrapolation.