At a presidential debate screening in Jakarta on Saturday night, checkered shirts dominated the wardrobe of the crowded cafe. While supporters of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto had asserted a strong presence at previous screenings in the same venue, this time support had clearly turned in favour of his opponent, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo. The checks were a tribute to Jokowi, who made the motif his trademark while running for governor in Jakarta and, in the final televised debate before the election this Wednesday, wore it on stage to make his closing arguments to the Indonesian people.
The simple checkered shirt is supposed to symbolise Jokowi's grassroots approach, in contrast to the expensive suits or fine batik shirts worn by leaders from elite circles. Over the course of his presidential campaign, Jokowi has tried on these different garments, wearing batik or a Western-style suit to the presidential debates (though he made sure to publicise that the suit was made for less than $100 in a traditional market). The return to checks in the final debate was accompanied by a return to form for Jokowi, who with his running mate Jusuf Kalla put rival pair Prabowo and Hatta Rajasa on the back foot with thinly veiled attacks on corrupt elements within their coalition.
It was the show Jokowi's supporters had been waiting to see in a poorly organised campaign that has allowed Prabowo to change the odds from a landslide win for Jokowi to a split close to 50-50. The closing gap in the polls mean a nail-biting finish for the election this Wednesday, which the Constitutional Court has ruled will be won in a single round by a vote of 50% plus one, regardless of the division of votes among the provinces.
Jokowi's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has been blamed for undermining his presidential bid via poor planning, ungenerous funding and lacklustre campaigning. While Prabowo has spent years building his image as a presidential contender, Jokowi was given a few short months to raise his national profile by his party chairwoman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who waited until the very last moment to announce her support for his bid, having first to put aside her own presidential ambitions. Megawati is also said to have delayed Jokowi's nomination to protect him from smear campaigns, of which there have turned out to be several.
National Police are now pursuing the case of an unlicenced tabloid titled Obor Rakyat ('Torch of the People'), which appeared in Islamic boarding schools in Central and East Java and spread allegations that Jokowi, a Javanese Muslim, was actually a Christian of Chinese descent — the Indonesian equivalent of a 'birther' campaign in a nation that is majority-Muslim and has only once in its history had a non-Javanese president. On debate night, the Jokowi camp's reply was distributed among viewers at the Jakarta screening: a tabloid featuring the headline 'The flames of slander are never extinguished' together with a photograph of Jokowi performing Muslim prayers. The tabloid was titled 'Arus Bawah' ('Grassroots').
Where Jokowi's campaign has found success, it has been at the level of the grassroots. Volunteers have carried the presidential ticket with self-initiated activities in communities, public spaces and online.
Because Jokowi's supporters are spread among so many small groups, it comes as a surprise to see their numbers when they gather in one place. Prior to Saturday night's debate, a public concert supporting Jokowi was held in Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno, a stadium complex named after the first president, Sukarno. Headlined by Slank, one of Indonesia's most popular rock bands and the producers of a campaign song for Jokowi, the concert filled the stadium to capacity with supporters holding up two fingers to indicate their preference for Jokowi, candidate number two on the ballot. Other artists in the line-up reportedly performed for free in support of Jokowi, while online news reported that concert-goers volunteered to clean up rubbish after the show so that Jokowi would not be blamed for making a mess.
As Indonesians go to the polls on Wednesday, the appeal of each of the candidates and their campaigning over the past few months will be tested. The question for Jokowi will be whether his fragmented grassroots support base will add up nationwide to bring him and his simple checkered shirt to the Presidential Palace.