Polls suggest that Indonesia’s Joko Widodo will coast to victory during the upcoming presidential election, but they have been wrong before. A narrower-than-expected win for the incumbent on Wednesday cannot be dismissed, and this presents the risk of political tension in south-east Asia’s biggest economy. 

As the campaign for Mr Widodo’s second and final term in office enters its last days, his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, appears to be gaining momentum. There are enough swing voters in Indonesia to suggest the president has little room for complacency.

An FT Confidential Research survey of 1,000 urban Indonesians conducted in late March and early April suggested that Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin would get 52.6 per cent of the votes. 

A simple extrapolation of our poll result — removing the undecideds and the abstainers — shows the pair with a 23.9 percentage point-lead against Mr Prabowo and his vice-presidential pick Sandiaga Uno. 

The strong support for Mr Widodo is in line with his quarterly approval rating, which rose to a new high in the first quarter. 

We also asked respondents to review the president’s overall performance since he assumed office in October 2014 and found 65.7 per cent of respondents giving their approval. 

Our survey results are in line with those conducted by third-party polling groups, which all point to a comfortable victory for Mr Widodo. 

But the polls have been wrong before — as they were in 2014, when predictions that Mr Widodo would win the presidential election in a landslide were proven wrong. In 2017 pollsters predicted a close race between then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and challenger Anies Baswedan, which the latter won convincingly. 

With more than a third of respondents to our survey saying they could change their minds on Wednesday, a similar surprise cannot be ruled out. 

The stakes may be higher than suggested by polling firm data. Opposition figures are already preparing for a narrow margin and appear poised to call the election process into question. Amien Rais, a prominent ally of Mr Subianto, is threatening to call for “people power” protests and bypass the constitutional court should there be any hint of electoral fraud. Mr Rais played a leading role in the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998. 

A run of bad news 

A high percentage of swing voters means events leading up to voting day could influence the outcome. Unfortunately for Mr Widodo, his electability may have been eroded by a series of ugly headlines. 

Indonesia’s independent anti-corruption body last month arrested his ally Muhammad Romahurmuziy, leader of one of the parties in the ruling coalition, for allegedly taking bribes in return for securing promotion at the Religious Affairs Ministry. 

The same body revealed last week that it had confiscated alleged bribe money worth approximately $3.3m from officials of the Public Works and Housing Ministry, an agency that plays a critical role in Mr Widodo’s much-touted infrastructure push. 

Two viral videos have undermined the campaign. The first shows a senior minister handing an envelope to an influential cleric and asking him to instruct his followers to vote for Mr Widodo. The second shows Mr Amin calling on fellow clerics to “eliminate” Mr Purnama, and appears to have been recorded at the height of Muslim protests against the then-Jakarta governor, a Christian politician, in late 2016. 

Secular liberals getting nervous 

The second video feeds into a perception among Mr Widodo’s secular base that he capitulated to his ideological foes by failing to protect Mr Purnama, and then chose a cleric with sectarian views as his running mate. 

Mr Widodo has also been accused by human rights groups and academics of an authoritarian bent in silencing opposition. They point to his decision to ban the local branch of the global Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2017 as breaching Indonesia’s constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and assembly. 

A majority of respondents agreed with Mr Widodo’s decision to ban the group, and a majority also do not think he has abused the law to silence critics or that the government has turned authoritarian. However, our survey still points to a sizeable minority of Indonesians who think that Mr Widodo has become illiberal. 

Mr Widodo’s camp has portrayed Mr Subianto, a former army officer, as a human rights abuser, noting his role in the abduction of student activists in 1998. But our survey suggests voters do not perceive a huge difference in the civil liberties records of the two candidates, increasing the risk that liberal voters will abstain from voting. 

Indonesia has a long tradition of ballot spoiling, known locally as golput, and a lower turnout is likely to favour Mr Subianto — parties aligned with the challenger seem to do better at getting their supporters to vote than those backing Mr Widodo. 

— Andi Haswidi, Senior Researcher, FT Confidential Research

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and south-east Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.