Indonesia's Widodo rallies supporters ahead of poll

JAKARTA (AFP) - Presidential hopeful Joko Widodo pledged to build a "new history" for Indonesia at a huge campaign rally Saturday, a last push to win votes in a tight election race.

Tens of thousands of cheering supporters waved flags emblazoned with pictures of Mr Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, at Jakarta's main stadium on the final day of campaigning before Wednesday's election.

Backers of his only rival, Prabowo Subianto, were holding rallies to show their support across the country, while the ex-general took time out to prepare for a televised debate with Mr Widodo later Saturday.

At the rally, Mr Widodo - seen as a fresh face in a country still dominated by figures from the autocratic Suharto era - told the cheering crowd: "We are on the verge of building a new history." The Jakarta governor added that his push for the presidency had been "hit by smear campaigns but we didn't fall apart because we truly believe in the Republic of Indonesia".

He was referring to a flood of negative attacks on him that have eroded his popularity, including that he is not a Muslim, a damaging charge in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

As well as the smear campaigns, Mr Prabowo has extended his lead due to a slick, well-funded campaign, a contrast with Mr Widodo's often disorganised effort.

Before Mr Widodo's speech, dozens of singers and bands performed for free to show their support. From Sunday, no more campaigning is allowed before the vote.

As well as being seen as a break from the era of dictator Suharto, Mr Widodo has also won plaudits for his common touch and being a clean leader in a graft-ridden country.

Mr Prabowo in contrast was a top military figure in the Suharto era who admitted ordering the abduction of democracy activists, but he has won over many voters by pledging to be a strong leader.

Mr Widodo is fighting to hold on to a poll lead of a few percentage points, down from a huge lead several months ago, and pollsters say the race is now too close to call.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.