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Indonesia Election: Everything You Need to Know

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The numbers are staggering.

More than 100 million people are expected to vote, many for the first time. They’ll do so in booths across thousands of islands and three time zones, hammering nails into ballots to mark their choices. And within hours, if history is any guide, the world will know the outcome of the biggest race of the day: the one for Indonesia’s presidency.

Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, will hold its general election on Wednesday. Election Day is a national holiday, and on average, about 75 percent of eligible voters have turned out. In addition to the president, voters are choosing members of Parliament and local representatives.

This election season has raised fears that Indonesia, which was an authoritarian state not long ago, is in danger of sliding back toward its dark past. The potential ramifications extend far beyond the country’s borders. As one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal, nickel and palm oil, Indonesia has a large role to play in the climate change crisis.

And in the contest between the United States and China for influence in Asia, Indonesia is seen by U.S. officials as a “swing state.” Under President Joko Widodo, ties with China have deepened significantly, but he has also maintained strong defense relations with Washington.

Here’s what you need to know.

The election is widely seen as a referendum on the legacy of Mr. Joko, who is stepping down after two five-year terms.

Often referred to as Jokowi, he remains extremely popular because he has transformed Indonesia into one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economic success stories. He ushered in a universal health care system, built more than 1,000 miles of roads and highways, and oversaw respectable economic growth of about 5 percent a year.

His supporters say his job is unfinished and that there are pressing issues, such as inequality and poverty, that still need to be addressed. Critics say that as Mr. Joko has pushed infrastructure and welfare programs, he has also presided over backsliding on democratic norms. And now, they add, he is maneuvering to extend his influence on politics once he’s out of office.

Mr. Joko appears to be backing Prabowo Subianto, a onetime rival who has been accused of human rights abuses, to become his successor, alarming even some of his supporters. The outcome of the election could determine the future of democracy in Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population.

For the first time in 15 years, voters will get to pick from three presidential candidates: Mr. Prabowo, the current defense minister; Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta; and Ganjar Pranowo, who ran Central Java.

A year ago, many Indonesians thought Mr. Ganjar — the candidate fielded by Mr. Joko’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle — was a shoo-in. But his reputation took a hit after he pushed to bar an Israeli team from entering Indonesia to compete in the Under-20 World Cup. That resulted in Indonesia losing the right to host the tournament, a blow to a soccer-obsessed country.

Then, in October, Mr. Joko’s brother-in-law cast the deciding vote in the Constitutional Court for a rule change that allowed the president’s 36-year-old son to run for vice president. Mr. Joko’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, quickly joined Mr. Prabowo’s ticket, leaving the impression that the president had used his influence to sway the court.

Mr. Prabowo has touted himself as the continuity candidate, saying this month that Mr. Joko’s policies had been “very, very beneficial for all of the people.” But he is a polarizing choice.

To many Indonesians, he symbolizes the brutal, three-decade rule of the dictator Suharto. Mr. Prabowo was married to one of Suharto’s daughters and served as a general in his military, which was notorious for human rights violations. In 1998, Mr. Prabowo was discharged from the army for ordering the kidnappings of student activists.

Surveys show Mr. Prabowo with a wide lead in the polls, but it is less clear whether he will win more than 50 percent of the vote and at least 20 percent of the vote in 20 provinces, which would give him the presidency without having to go through a runoff election in June.

Mr. Ganjar has also promised to continue most of Mr. Joko’s policies, albeit with tweaks. He has been described as “Jokowi lite.” But analysts say he has struggled to define his message, and polls show his support topping off at around 20 percent.

Mr. Anies was initially seen as the distant third in the race. A former university rector, he was perceived as too scholarly to resonate with the masses. Many people in Jakarta think highly of him for implementing a mass rapid transit system and managing the coronavirus pandemic. But his previous ties to radical Islamist preachers have made many voters wary.

In recent weeks, momentum has been building up for Mr. Anies, who is campaigning on a platform for change. His performance in the recent debates have impressed Gen Z voters and educated urbanites. He has argued that Mr. Joko’s plan to move the capital to another island would not lead to equitable development, and he has warned about the return of nepotism.

Some recent surveys have shown Mr. Anies ahead of Mr. Ganjar, with support of about 22 percent.

Indonesia’s minimum voting age is 17, and people under 40 make up more than half of the voters. Surveys have found that younger voters are concerned about the economy, education, employment and eradicating corruption.

It is one of the world’s most complex single-day elections. About 205 million people are registered to vote in this sprawling archipelago of about 17,000 islands, roughly 7,000 of which are inhabited.

Six million election officials have begun fanning out across the country to ensure that as many people as possible get a chance to vote. Logistics are a headache in some places — officials have gone by horseback, taken boats, flown by helicopter and trekked for hours to bring ballots to voters.

“It is a massive, colossal task,” said Yulianto Sudrajat, a member of Indonesia’s General Election Commission who is in charge of logistics.

Voters will mark their ballots by hammering nails into them, which election officials say is a fairer method than using a pen, since some Indonesians are unfamiliar with writing instruments. As the votes are counted, election officials hold the ballots up so people can see light shining through the hole.

Unlike India, where national elections take place over several weeks, Indonesia votes in a day. In 2019, the process took such a toll that 894 election workers died, prompting the government to urge volunteers this time to undergo health screenings.

Although the official vote count takes weeks to confirm, the results are generally known by the end of the day, based on so-called quick counts, a kind of exit poll. After polling stations close at 1 p.m. Jakarta time, independent pollsters will tally ballots from a sampling of voting stations nationwide.

In previous elections, the quick counts — released by 5 p.m. — have accurately reflected the real results.

Rin Hindryati and Hasya Nindita contributed reporting.

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