The numbers are shocking.
More than 100 million people are expected to vote, many for the first time. They will do so at booths across thousands of islands and three time zones, hammering nails into ballots to mark their choices. And within hours, if history is any guide, the world will know the outcome of the biggest race of the day: that of Indonesia’s presidency.
Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, will hold general elections on Wednesday. Election Day is a national holiday, and on average, about 75 percent of eligible voters turn out. In addition to the president, voters elect MPs and local representatives.
This election season has raised fears that Indonesia, which was an authoritarian state not long ago, is in danger of slipping back into its dark past. The potential ramifications extend far beyond the country’s borders. As one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, nickel and palm oil, Indonesia has a big role to play in the climate change crisis.
And in the contest between the United States and China for influence in Asia, Indonesia is seen by American officials as a “swing state.” Under President Joko Widodo, ties with China have deepened significantly, but he has also maintained strong defense ties with Washington.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is at stake?
The election is widely seen as a referendum on the legacy of Mr Joko, who is stepping down after two five-year terms.
Often referred to as Jokowi, he remains hugely popular because he has transformed Indonesia into one of Southeast Asia’s greatest economic success stories. He introduced a universal health care system, built more than 1,000 miles of roads and highways, and oversaw respectable economic growth of about 5 percent a year.
His supporters say his work is incomplete and that there are pressing issues, such as inequality and poverty, that still need to be addressed. Critics say that as Mr. Joko has pushed infrastructure and welfare programs, he has also presided over a rollback of democratic norms. And now, they add, he’s maneuvering to expand his political influence once he’s gone.
Mr Joko appears to be backing Prabowo Subianto, a one-time rival who has been accused of human rights abuses, to succeed him, worrying even some of his supporters. The outcome of the election could determine the future of democracy in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.
Who is running for president?
For the first time in 15 years, voters will be able to choose from three presidential candidates: Mr Prabowo, the current defense minister; Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta. and Ganjar Pranowo, who ruled Central Java.
A year ago, many Indonesians believed that Mr. Ganjar — the candidate voted for by Mr. Joko’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle — was an aggressor. But his reputation took a hit after he pushed to ban an Israeli team from entering Indonesia to compete in the under-20 World Cup. This resulted in Indonesia losing the right to host the tournament, a blow for a football-obsessed country.
Then in October, Mr Joko’s brother-in-law cast the deciding vote at the Constitutional Court for a rule change that allowed the president’s 36-year-old son to run for vice president. Mr Joko’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, quickly joined Mr Prabowo’s ticket, leaving the impression that the president had used his influence to influence the court.
Mr Prabowo has touted himself as a successor, saying this month that Mr Joko’s policies were “very, very beneficial for all people”. But it’s a polarizing choice.
For many Indonesians, it symbolizes the brutal, three-decade rule of dictator Suharto. Mr Prabowo was married to one of Suharto’s daughters and served as a general in his army, which was notorious for human rights abuses. In 1998, Mr Prabowo was dismissed from the army for ordering the kidnapping of student activists.
Polls show Mr. Prabowo has a wide lead in opinion polls, but it is less clear whether he will win more than 50 percent of the vote and at least 20 percent of the vote in 20 provinces, which would give him the presidency without they need to go through a second round of elections in June.
Mr Ganjar has also promised to continue most of Mr Joko’s policies, albeit with modifications. He has been described as “Jokowi lite”. But analysts say he has struggled to define his message, and polls show his support at more than 20 percent.
Mr. Anies was initially seen as a distant third in the race. A former university chancellor, he was considered too scholarly to appeal to the masses. Many people in Jakarta appreciate him for implementing a mass rapid transit system and managing the coronavirus pandemic. But his past ties to radical Islamic preachers have made many voters wary.
In recent weeks, momentum has been building for Mr. Anies, who is campaigning on a platform for change. His performance in recent debates has impressed Gen Z voters and educated urbanites. He has argued that Mr Joko’s plan to move the capital to another island will not lead to equitable development and has warned of the return of nepotism.
Some recent polls showed Mr Anies ahead of Mr Ganjar, with around 22% support.
The minimum voting age in Indonesia is 17, and people under 40 make up more than half of voters. Surveys have shown that younger voters are concerned about the economy, education, jobs and eliminating corruption.
What sets this election apart from others?
It is one of the most complicated one-day elections in the world. About 205 million people are registered to vote in this sprawling archipelago of about 17,000 islands, of which about 7,000 are inhabited.
Six million election officials have sprung up across the country to make sure as many people as possible have the chance to vote. The logistics are a headache in some places – officials rode horses, took boats, flew in by helicopter and walked for hours to carry ballots to voters.
“It’s a huge, colossal task,” said Yulianto Sudrajat, a member of Indonesia’s General Election Commission in charge of logistics.
Voters will mark their ballots by hammering nails into them, which election officials say is a fairer method than using a pen, as some Indonesians are unfamiliar with writing instruments. As the votes are counted, election officials hold up the ballot boxes so people can see light shining through the hole.
Unlike India, where national elections are held over several weeks, Indonesia votes in one day. In 2019, the process took such a toll that 894 election workers died, prompting the government to urge volunteers this time to undergo health checks.
Although the official vote count takes weeks to be confirmed, the results are generally known by the end of the day, based on so-called quick counts, a type of exit poll. After the polls close at 13.00 Jakarta time, independent pollsters will count the ballots from a sampling of polling stations across the country.
In previous elections, the quick counts — released at 5 p.m. — accurately reflected the actual results.
Rin Hidriati and Hasya Nidita contributed to the report.