JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In mid-2011, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who was then in his second term as mayor of Surakarta in Central Java, embarked on a deliberately crafted campaign for nationwide fame. He capitalised on his success in turning his previously filthy city into one of the country's most desirable places to live.
While at that time Jokowi repeatedly refuted suggestions that he was eyeing the 2014 presidential race, it would have been naive not to believe otherwise. His orchestrated activities were all meant for bigger things as he churned out public relation stunts aimed at getting as much media coverage as possible, with the result that hardly a day passed without Jokowi being in the news.
It took the former furniture businessman around three years of extremely intensive publicity to climb up the ladder to clinch the Jakarta gubernatorial job before going on to the presidency.
Now, around nine months ahead of the General Elections Commission (KPU) opening registration for the 2019 presidential candidates, little has been heard of Jokowi's potential rivals.
And with the election less than 18 months away, whoever is looking to challenge Jokowi will have a hard time accumulating financial resources, lobbying political parties for alliances and garnering enough media support.
Jokowi, meanwhile, is all geared up financially and politically. Many influential tycoons remain at the wing of the President, and the Golkar Party, NasDem Party and Hanura Party have officially given Jokowi their tickets to run in the presidential election.
Unlike in previous elections since the Reform Era of 1998, the upcoming election on April 17, 2019, will be entirely different. Voters will have to simultaneously cast ballots for their local councilors, members of the House of Representatives and president in one go.
For political parties, the new system will force them to rely even more on their presidential candidates to lure voters as there is a tendency for voters to select a party that supports their favoured candidate.
The upcoming presidential election is expected to see political parties forming coalitions that polarise into a two-horse race; Jokowi against whoever is nominated by a coalition of Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra Party and Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
There is possibility for a third candidate if Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party forges a coalition with the National Mandate Party (PAN) and National Awakening Party (PKB) or United Development Party (PPP). But this would be very costly for the Democratic Party in monetary terms, and there do not appear to be many alternative challengers to Jokowi.
Aside from Prabowo, who is touted by many surveys as the strongest contender with a solid support base of between 30 and 35 per cent, other potential names include current Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, Indonesia Military Commander (TNI) Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo and former president Yudhoyono's son Agus Harimurti.
Anies, Gatot and Agus have been cited by recent surveys as trailing behind Prabowo, and their support bases are less than 5 per cent while Jokowi's stands at more than 55 per cent. Thus far, the three have not indicated their intention to run and Prabowo has assured the public he will not allow Anies to quit his job as Jakarta governor for the presidential race.
However, in the past month, Anies and Gatot have already maneuvered to garner media headlines, albeit not in a heartening way, as they have churned out controversial remarks that may only divide the nation. Both have also been capitalising on Islamic sentiment, creating the perception that Muslims in Indonesia have been generally left behind and sidelined.
Gatot has toured pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), attended mass prayers and fired off praise for clerics and santri (pesantren students), calling them the vanguard of the nation's defence.
Less has been heard of Anies and Gatot pointing to their achievements, or reforms they have initiated, to get media coverage. Perhaps they do not have many.
Agus, meanwhile, is on a road show to many places in Indonesia to get recognition. He is also projecting an identity of a fateful Muslim by preaching in mosques and holding mass prayers.
Although Jokowi's potential rivals may seem harmless, winning the election may not be a walk in the park. His contenders, for sure, will have a substantial number of captive voters who will ensure Jokowi will not be a shoo-in for a second term. Recent surveys indicate this number at between 30 and 35 per cent, similar to the support base of Prabowo.
Prabowo has the potential to expand his support as he has not embarked on a systematic campaign to boost his electability since he lost the presidential race to Jokowi in 2014. And the retired general will become a formidable rival if he takes Anies as his number two.
However, Prabowo's declining health, depleted financial capacity and profound fears of humiliation if he loses again will open the possibility of him "awarding" the Gerindra ticket to either Anies or Gatot, or other figures who the public may not have expected.
Indonesia's politics is very febrile, as friend can turn into enemy and enemy can become friend overnight, paving the way for many scenarios.
However, what lurks ahead may pose a threat to democracy. Given the limited available time for expanding electability, it is not a far-fetched assumption to suspect Jokowi's rivals will be tempted to cut corners; resorting to ethnic and Islamic sentiments.
The National Police has forecast a rise in religion-infused conflict next year as a result of political rivalries ahead of the simultaneous regional elections on June 27, 2018, and the threat will linger on to the first quarter of 2019.
If the actions and the controversial remarks by several potential contenders serve as any indication, there is growing concern of unhealthy competition and the emergence of a destructive end-justifies-the-means mindset.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.