As the first commander of the elite Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) Detachment 81 anti-terrorism unit in the early 1980s, Luhut Panjaitan became particularly familiar with the dense jungle and rolling tea plantations around the West Java town of Sukabumi, now a three-hour drive south of Jakarta.

It was there, in the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, on the slopes of a volcano to the east of Sukabumi, that Kopassus engaged a British Special Air Service squadron in the first joint counter-insurgency training exercise on Indonesian soil in 1987.

During Confrontation two decades before, the two units had used those same jungle-fighting skills against each other in the Borneo wilderness as the Indonesian government sought vainly to prevent the creation of the Federation of Malaysia.

Early last month, Panjaitan – a retired four-star general and both chief maritime minister and presidential adviser – returned to the park to open Southeast Asia’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge across a deep ravine separating two villages.

Indonesia-Luhut Panjaitan-CSIS-Youtube-April 25-2017
Luhut Panjaitan is a key player in Java. Photo: AFP

But this time it was more about repeating his role as convener of self-funding Bravo Lima, the informal campaign team which made a key difference in the 2014 race and which is working to secure a second term for President Joko Widodo in the April 17  presidential election.

Indonesia’s most populous province, West Java is a classic battleground for Panjaitan, 71, and presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto, 67, himself a former Kopassus commander who saw his career cut short in 1998 following the fall of president Suharto, his former father-in-law.

They’re not the only uniformed heavyweights on the hustings. Bravo Five includes more than 20 of Panjaitan’s retired military colleagues, while Prabowo’s campaign manager is former army chief of staff Gen Djoko Santoso, 66.

The two generals were bitter rivals during their years in the military, mostly because of Prabowo’s penchant for using his family connections to stray outside the chain of command. In retirement, they have reconciled, but the relationship is still on a periodic roller-coaster.

Overall, Prabowo won West Java by a commanding 59.7%-40.2% margin in 2014, or more than five million votes. Widodo is determined to wrest it back, this time with the help of the second-ranked Golkar Party which previously supported Prabowo. But this won’t be easy.

Unlike the Javanese populace to the east, West Java is home to 34 million Sundanese, the country’s second largest ethnic group with a class structure somewhat different from the feudal hierarchy of the dominant Javanese.

The 243-meter Situgunung swing bridge and the newly-completed 54-kilometer toll road linking Sukabumi with the existing Jakarta-Bogor-Ciawi expressway are two projects Widodo hopes will persuade West Java voters to support him.

What has not progressed so well is the 143-km Jakarta-Bandung fast-railway, a  Chinese-funded, US$5.8 billion project which is now not due for completion until 2021 because of land acquisition delays for the right-of-way and related commercial development.

While the rail link will bring obvious benefits to West Java, Prabowo has vowed to review the project, playing on public fears that as much as the government needs Chinese money for its infrastructure program, Indonesia is becoming too indebted to Beijing.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto prays during his campaign at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta on April 7, 2019. Photo: AFP/Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency

“I promise Indonesia will be nobody’s underling or proxy,” Prabowo told a weekend crowd of thousands of supporters under a hot morning sun in Ciamis, close to the West Java border with Central Java.

Recent polls show Widodo holding an insurmountable lead in Central and East Java, where the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) has its base of support. In West  Java, the pair are neck-and-neck, though Prabowo is well ahead in Jakarta and neighboring Banten, which was separated from West Java as part of decentralization in 2000.

Sukabumi and the other southern districts of Tasikmalaya, Garut and Purwakarta, all bastions of Islamic conservatism, are where Widodo took his heaviest losses by 40%-plus margins in 2014. Much of the support for the campaign to bring down his ally, Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, came from these areas.

The Prabowo campaign highlights its support for the conservative groups, commonly referred to as the “212 Movement” after a massive rally in Jakarta on December 2, 2017, which led to Purnama’s defeat and his later arrest and jailing on blasphemy charges.

At the Ciamis rally before Prabowo arrived, leaders of the movement mounted the stage to pledge their support to the opposition candidate, with security provided by the militant Islamic Defenders Front  (FPI).

Muslims make up 97% of West Java’s 49 million population, significantly higher than the national average and topped only by once-rebellious Aceh, the only province where Sharia law is permitted, neighboring West Sumatra and Gorantalo province in northern Sulawesi.

Long before Al Qaeda came along, the southwest corner of Java was the birthplace of Darul Islam, an armed movement which fought to turn the newly-independent Indonesian republic into an Islamic state during the first decade of the Sukarno government.

According to rights watchdog Setara, West Java and Jakarta recorded the highest number of cases of religious intolerance than any other region in 2018 – 47 out of 160 nationwide, mostly committed by religious and community leaders.

The demarcation line between voters is clear: those who support Widodo, an avowed pluralist, don’t see Islam as the basis of the state. But those who favor deeper Islamisation are behind Prabowo.

The former general, whose family members are all Christian, received the loudest roar of approval at the Ciamis rally when he promised to bring back firebrand FPI leader Rizieq Shihab from two years of enforced exile in Saudi Arabia.

“They say I’m a radical, but I am for Islam as a religion of peace that respects all races and religions,” he remarked, referring to bogus claims that he supports the creation of a caliphate. “We just want to live in peace and prosperity.”

The largest of the West Java boarding schools, Miftahul Huda, near Ciamis, with its 4,000 students focused solely on the study of the Koran, seeded the 212 Movement. The school has become an important campaign stop: Prabowo has courted many of its teachers and won their support.

Even Widodo visited last August, but he may have been going through the motions. “We have to meet people directly,” said a member of Bravo Five. “These are simple people and you have to take time to answer all their concerns.”

Organizing big gatherings, he says, doesn’t work. Going face to face and door to door does, but the campaign workers don’t waste their time trying to change the thinking at mosques and ultra-conservative boarding schools.

Having the second-ranked Golkar on board this time is expected to help Widodo in the more moderate districts of Subang, Majalengka, Indramayu and Cirebon on the vote-rich northern coast, where his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) claims a significant following.

In Purwakarta, home of synthetic textile giant Indorama, district regent Anne Mustika, 37, and her husband and predecessor, Dedi Mulyadi, 47, both Golkar stalwarts, were being relied on to help reverse Widodo’s disastrous showing there in 2014.

But PDI-P cadre worries that not all Golkar branches are fully committed to supporting Widodo, complaining that Golkar candidates competing with PDI-P in the legislative elections were distancing themselves from the president to do so. It is also true that not all Golkar voters are Widodo voters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, seen here at a search and rescue event last month, is expected to nominate Army chief Tjahjanto, on his right, as defense minister if he wins the election in April. Photo: Donal Husni / NurPhoto/ AFP

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is hoping to retain office. Photo: AFP/Donal Husni/Nur PhotoOne important asset for Widodo is independent West Java governor Ridwan Kamil, 47, the previous Bandung mayor who won 40% of the vote against three other candidates in the provincial capital of Bandung and nearby Garut and Cimahi in last year’s gubernatorial elections.

“He’s key to the swing vote,” one Widodo strategist says of Kamil, an architect-turned politician with a clever eye fixed on both progressive policies and Islamic sensitivities. “He is liked by everyone and he is smart, but he is only one man.”

Local surveys done by the respected Institute of Technology Bandung (ITB) suggest Widodo will win the district of Bandung, formerly a Prabowo stronghold covering the northern part of the hill city. But the president risks losing West Bandung and the city center, known as Kota Madya.

Widodo is expected to find the other districts along the Indian Ocean coast much harder going. Instead of religion, the opposition message is built around the president’s perceived failure to address social and economic inequality and to control prices, particularly of food and other basic necessities.

For the Islamists, who are more aware than anyone that their candidate has no sympathy for their extremist agenda, it is not so much about electing Prabowo, as it is about ejecting a president they don’t like. Hence their simple rallying cry: Ganti presiden (change the president).

“Both Muslim supporters of Prabowo and Prabowo suffer from delusions,” says veteran PDI-P legislator Jalaludin Rakhmat. “Prabowo thinks that if he wins he can dispose of the Muslims, while the Muslims believe they can use Prabowo as a tool to win power and get rid of him afterward.”

With reporting by Michael Vatikiotis in Bandung and Ciamis in West Java