JAKARTA • Campaigning for Indonesia's presidential election in April kicked off yesterday, pitting incumbent Joko Widodo against a former military general in the race to lead the world's third-biggest democracy.
Opinion polls show Mr Joko, whose down-to-earth style and ambitious infrastructure drive have made him popular with many Indonesians, well ahead of his main challenger, Mr Prabowo Subianto.
But Mr Joko's bid for a second term is facing headwinds over his economic record, with the Indonesian rupiah sitting at two-decade lows, and fears of a fake news campaign intended to disrupt his re-election.
Some 186 million voters in the world's largest Muslim-majority country are expected to go to the polls on April 17, in an election which will also decide members of national and local parliaments.
Both leaders - dressed in traditional Indonesian folk costumes - attended an official campaign launch in central Jakarta yesterday morning, in which they pledged to run a peaceful contest free from hoaxes and the politicisation of ethnicity and religion.
Many Indonesians will be keen to avoid a repeat of the Jakarta gubernatorial elections last year, which were marked by massive street demonstrations led by hardline Muslims opposed to the capital's former governor who is ethnic Chinese and a Christian.
Analysts say campaigning is likely to focus on the economy, inequality, identity politics and rising intolerance across the sprawling South-east Asian archipelago.
Mr Joko, who is popularly known as Jokowi, surprised many Indonesians in August by choosing to run alongside conservative Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin.
Mr Ma'ruf, 75, is chairman of the country's top Islamic authority, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which issues fatwas, and is known for his disparaging views towards certain minorities.
About 90 per cent of Indonesia's 260 million people have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam, but there are concerns that it is taking an increasingly conservative turn.
The pair will square off against Mr Prabowo and former deputy Jakarta governor Sandiaga Uno, a businessman and private equity tycoon.
Mr Prabowo, who lost to Mr Joko in 2014, was a top military figure in the chaotic months before dictator Suharto was toppled by student protests in 1998.
Following the strongman's downfall, Mr Prabowo accepted responsibility for the abduction of democracy activists and was discharged from the military.
The first major survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) after candidate registration closed showed Mr Joko and Mr Ma'ruf with 52 per cent support, ahead of Mr Prabowo and Mr Sandiaga on 30 per cent.
Mr Joko had a similar level of backing at the start of campaigning in 2014, only to watch the gap shrink dramatically as polling day neared.
Pundits say Mr Joko, who has hired billionaire Inter Milan chairman Erick Thohir as his campaign manager, is most vulnerable when it comes to the economy and inequality.
"The opposition will use economic issues in their campaigns, including foreign debt and foreign control of natural resources," said Mr Syamsuddin Haris, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
Indonesia's currency has slumped in recent weeks, falling to levels not seen since the country was embroiled in a region-wide financial crisis in 1998 that sparked economic ruin and the street protests that led to the downfall of Mr Suharto.