JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Desperate times call for desperate measures.
As the presidential election campaign enters its final stage this week, both candidates have redoubled their efforts to move the needle in their favour.
Incumbent President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, eager to pull ahead in the public opinion polls, which he expects to translate into a wide margin of victory on April 17, has stepped up his campaign based on the achievements of his first term in office.
In recent months, Jokowi has also made fresh pledges, including a pre-employment scheme that would provide benefits for job seekers and access to cheap basic commodities for the poor in the country.
If implemented, those subsidies would surely add a new burden to the state budget.
The Gerindra Party's presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, desperate to play catch-up in the polls (he is now trailing Jokowi by 18 per cent according to some pollsters), has in recent weeks ramped up his attacks on the incumbent.
There have been efforts to attack Jokowi's performance on the economic front, but most of the time Prabowo and his team have focused on playing the identity and religion cards.
Nothing illustrates better how Prabowo plays the Islamic card than Sunday's open-air campaign at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
The event was thick with religious fervour right from the start when tens of thousands performed mass dawn prayers in the early hours, Zikir and Quranic recitals.
Other highlights from the event included the moment when Islam Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab beamed his video message from Saudi Arabia calling for Muslims not to vote for any candidate who was a supporter of the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and liberalism, a veiled attack against Jokowi.
In his speech, Prabowo did reiterate his commitment to Pancasila as the state ideology but the tone and theatrics from the campaign have alarmed many.
Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would be the last person we would expect to deliver a criticism of the way Prabowo has played the religion card during this election, given the fact his Democratic Party is part of the opposition coalition and also because many have accused him of doing very little to deal with religious extremism while he was in power.
But on Sunday Yudhoyono took the moral high ground and delivered a stinging rebuke to Prabowo.
In a written statement he delivered from Singapore, where he is tending to his cancer-stricken wife, Yudhoyono called on Prabowo to stand for "unity in diversity" and said the campaign rally on Sunday did not reflect an inclusive national campaign.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) his stake in Prabowo's coalition, Yudhoyono's willingness to call a spade a spade is worthy of our praise.
As national politics becomes more polarised and key political figures are forced to take sides, we need politicians who have the courage to stand up for the country's founding principles.
You may not like Yudhoyono's politics, but he did the right thing on Sunday.
Any political candidates exploiting religion for a short-term gain should heed his call and start putting national unity above politics.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.