On a steaming hot morning last week, raspy-voiced presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto appeared before an enthusiastic crowd in the West Java city of Ciamis. “There are ghosts trying to steal your votes,” he told them, referring to voting lists where millions of people have the same dates of birth.

It was not the first time Prabowo and his coalition allies have warned of voter fraud and other irregularities, leaving observers to wonder whether they were already laying the table for a legal challenge and possible public unrest after the April 17 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Days later, he talked of a “tsunami of discontent,” telling one interviewer “we will not accept an election that is stolen” and raising fears that his defeat could trigger mass street protests by the conservative lobby that brought down former Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama.

Prabowo followed a similar tack after the 2014 election, with his lawyers calling into question 24.1 million votes from more than 52,000 polling stations over supposedly improper registration cards and inconsistent recounts and vote tallies.

But explaining away a 6% margin was always a big ask, particularly after the National Election Commission (KPU) had adopted kawalpemilu, an application devised by a young Indonesian geek that allows anyone to upload photographs of the final vote tabulations at all 805,000 GPS-equipped polling stations.

Earlier this month, the opposition campaign team claimed it had discovered troubling discrepancies in the KPU voter rolls, an allegation it has continued to pursue and which has established a climate of distrust that could keep the country’s security services on alert long after the election.

Question of legitimacy

Spokesmen said there were errors in dates of birth and duplicate identity card numbers affecting as many as 17.5 million of the 193 million eligible voters, about 75% of whom are expected to go to the polls in the world’s biggest single-day election.

“We will continue to demand outright that this be resolved as quickly as possible,“ said Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s brother and media manager of the campaign. “If not settled, such questions could raise issues over the legitimacy of the vote.”

Djojohadikusumo, 64, a wealthy businessman who made much of his money investing in the Kazakhstan oilfields, led the charge in 2014 as well and appeared to take Prabowo’s loss harder than the candidate himself, perhaps because he had spent heavily on the campaign.

One of the opposition’s main arguments is that too many people appear to be born on either July 1 or December 31. But the KPU says both dates have been used for the past 15 years as defaults for those who registered their births, but can’t remember their actual birthdates.

Claims of irregularities have become increasingly strident since popularity polls showed President Joko Widodo and running mate Ma’ruf Amin maintaining a healthy lead over their rivals as the campaign enters its final fortnight.

Unlike in the 2014 election, the gap is not closing appreciably, with Prabowo and vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno only leading in the polls on Sumatra among the eight main island groups, but in a tight contest in West Java and southern  Sulawesi.

The hardline Islamic People’s Forum (FUI), one of the extremist groups backing Prabowo’s election bid, has threatened to mobilize volunteers to monitor Jakarta polling places. FUI leader Muhammad Al Khathath said: “Our concern is if there is foul play, there will be chaos and we will lose.”

An Indonesian riot policeman next to a picture of Assembly Speaker Amien Rais, who is running in the presidential elections. Photo: AFP/Choo Youn-Kong

Former People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais, 74, founder of the National Mandate Party (PAN), one of the three parties in Prabowo’s coalition, has threatened a people’s power uprising at the slightest hint of voter fraud.

“If fraud happens, we will not go to the Constitutional Court (where electoral disputes are normally settled),” he warned at an April 2 rally outside the KPU headquarters. “There’s no point doing that. We are people power. People power is legitimate.”

One of the leaders of the 1998 movement which led to the resignation of president Suharto, Rais threatened then to mount a one million-strong demonstration in the heart of Jakarta, but backed off after the military told him it could turn into a bloodbath.

A year later, his call to arms over the erupting sectarian crisis in Maluku, which he claimed was an effort to weaken Islam in Indonesia, resulted in a major escalation of the violence. In the end, more than 5,000 Muslims and Christians died.

Rais ran and lost in the 2004 presidential election, finishing with only 15% of the vote. He remains an influential but disruptive figure on the advisory board of PAN and also Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest mass Muslim organization.

In more recent years, he has earned the reputation of a political gadfly, known for his inconsistent and controversial statements on a range of issues and one of the main reasons why PAN chose Prabowo over Widodo last year when the coalitions were being formed.

Asked what Rais, who like Widodo comes from the Central Java town of Solo, had against the president, one senior party member candidly told Asia Times: “It’s a  big mystery.”

Analysts believe Rais is preparing for the possibility that PAN will fail to make the 4% of the national vote threshold that is needed to gain representation in the newly-expanded 575-seat Parliament, a major setback for a party that won 7.1% of the vote in the first democratic-era election in 1999.

Despite that impressive showing, Rais was disappointed and responded by steering PAN away from the inclusive political pathway he had pioneered, losing much of the party’s non-Muslim support and only matching the 1999 result in the last election.

But while the writing may be on the wall for PAN, and with it an angry backlash, Prabowo may be in a dilemma. If he loses the presidential race, it will be difficult to claim widespread voter fraud if his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) succeeds in beating out Golkar as the second biggest party in the simultaneous legislative elections.

He won’t be able to have it both ways.