Indonesia’s biggest ever election under way as 193 million march to polls

Indonesia's biggest ever election under way as 193 million march to polls

People queue up before the start of voting during presidential and legislative elections in Bali, Indonesia Photograph: Firdia Lisnawati/AP

Tens of millions of Indonesians have started voting for a new president and more than 20,000 legislative seats, in what is one of the world’s most complicated ballots.

In the world’s third-largest democracy and largest Muslim-majority nation, almost 193 million Indonesians are registered to vote. The poll kicked off at 7am local time in restive Papua and will end at 1pm in Sumatra.

Voters are flocking to more than 800,000 polling stations where they will punch holes in ballots – to make clear their candidate choice – and then dip a finger in halal ink, a measure to prevent double-voting.

Indonesia: 193m people, 17,000 islands, one big election. Here’s what you need to know

It is the first time Indonesia is holding simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections – a hugely complex logistical undertaking in a country strung across thousands of islands – but it is the presidential race that has consumed much of the nation’s focus.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a former mayor and furniture salesman from central Java, is up against fiery nationalist and former army general Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo, the ex-son-in-law of Indonesia’s longtime ruler Suharto, is running with Sandiaga Uno, a former private equity manager, whilethe president controversially chose Ma’ruf Amin, 76, a conservative Islamic leader, as his vice-presidential running mate.

Indonesian election workers carry ballot boxes as they cross a river to deliver them to remote villages in Maros, South Sulawesi Photograph: Daeng Mansur/EPA

In an election campaign that has been marred by fake news, identity politics and attempts by the candidates to outdo each other in displays of religiosity, Jokowi has for months maintained a double-digit lead over his opponent – if the the country’s most credible polls are to be believed.

Contemplating whether one of the only true remaining democracies in south-east Asia could be prone to a political upset akin to Brexit, Trump or Duterte, analysts predict Indonesia will likely buck global trends.

“I think Indonesia was ahead of the curve in that aspect of democracy because the anti-establishment outsider, Joko Widodo, won in 2014 already,” says Indonesia analyst Kevin O’Rourke, “Ironically the incumbent is the outsider in this race, meanwhile Prabowo Subianto is not the outsider, or anti-establishment figure, he is a quintessential member of the elite.”

Jokowi’s 2014 win against Prabowo was hailed as a victory for Indonesia’s young democracy – the first time a figure untethered to the military or political elite had been elected head of state.

‘Don’t teach me democracy!’: an uneasy audience with Indonesia’s Prabowo

As president, Jokowi has impressed voters with his commitment to building infrastructure and social welfare, but has drawn criticism for failing to address past human rights and chronic corruption, and most recently for leveraging the state apparatus, including law enforcement agencies and Islamic groups, to solidify his support base.

Some voters, disillusioned with the president and also the alternative, an ex-special forces commander accused of various human rights abuses, have vowed to “golput” or abstain in protest.

In the weeks leading up to today’s vote, the opposition has claimed the integrity of the electoral list is undermined by the existence of millions of “ghost” voters – a move some analysts believe indicates they are laying the groundwork for a legal challenge if they lose.

But there has been other hiccups too. A video that circulated last week allegedly showed bags of ballot papers found in Malaysia that were pre-marked for Jokowi. There is also concern over rampant practices of vote buying, and the inundation of overseas polling stations in recent days, which have reportedly prevented hundreds from voting, have generated concern.

Indonesia’s electoral commission has pledged to investigate, and Wednesday’s election, a government-mandated national holiday, is expected to proceed peacefully and under the watchful eye of voters, thousands of whom plan to monitor the open-air count after the polls close in the afternoon.

The polls present a huge logistical challenge in a country stretching 4,800 kilometres across more than 17,000 islands with a population of more than 260 million, including hundreds of ethnic groups and languages.

Officials are moving cardboard ballot boxes by motorbikes, boats and planes – as well as elephants and horses – to reach mountaintop villages and communities deep in the jungle.

A series of so-called “quick counts” are expected to give a reliable indication of the presidential winner later Wednesday. Official results are not expected until May.

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