His name isn't on the ballot, but Indonesia's wildly popular President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, looms large in the Feb. 14 election in the world's third-largest democracy, and nowhere more so than in his province. native to Central Java.
Campaign posters plastered along the river in the provincial capital Semarang proclaim Jokowi's choice of Gerindra as a reference not to the president's political party but to that of his former rival, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
Jokowi has not officially endorsed anyone in the race to succeed him, but his son's status as Mr. Prabowo's running mate is widely seen as a presidential seal of approval.
After serving a maximum of two terms, Jokowi will step down next October, but with an 80% approval rating, he holds enormous influence over Indonesia's 205 million voters.
Mr. Prabowo, who lost to Jokowi in the last two presidential elections, holds a sizable lead this time, with analysts attributing the incumbent president's perceived support to a phenomenon some call the Jokowi effect.
The effect is particularly pronounced in Central Java, where former governor Ganjar Pranowo, once seen as Jokowi's natural successor, has all but lost his country's advantage.
The turning point came when Mr. Prabowo added Jokowi's son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to his list, said Kennedy Muslim, an analyst at pollster Indikator Politik.
This one big move has paid off handsomely in polls over the past three months by boosting support for Prabowos, Mr. Muslim said, describing a drastic migration of Jokowi loyalists.
It is unclear whether Mr. Prabowo's double-digit lead over Mr. Ganjar and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan will secure more than 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a runoff, although recent polls place him in a position of strength.
A year ago, the election frontrunner was the photogenic Mr. Ganjar, another member of Jokowi's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), hoping to follow his journey from hardworking provincial leader to leader of India's largest economy. South East Asia.
But in recent months, that picture has changed dramatically as Jokowi appeared to move closer to Mr. Prabowo amid reports of a rift between the president and PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Family ties across party lines
Since Mr Prabowo controversially named Jokowi's son as his running mate in October, Mr Ganjar's ratings in the Javanese heartland have plunged 30 points to 38% from 68%, while Mr Prabowo's popularity has now eclipsed his own.
The sudden collapse of Ganjars polls even in Central Java and East Java is also due to this Jokowi effect, Mr. Muslim said. Demonstrating how powerful and consequential the influence of Jokowis is the ultimate kingmaker.
Blood is thicker than political parties, said Sudaryono, head of Mr. Prabowos' party in Central Java.
Agus, who runs a market stall in Semarang, said: When people see Gibran, they see Jokowi. If Gibran wasn't there, Prabowo would fall for sure.
Mr. Prabowo undoubtedly ran a savvy campaign, trading his old nationalist tirades for cute dances and adopting the nickname gemoy, meaning cute and cuddly.
At a carnival-like campaign event in Tegal, also in Central Java, with live music, door prizes and bouncy castles, hundreds of fans dressed in sky blue shirts featuring the Mr Prabowos' AI avatar braved the oppressive heat to attend.
I like its free food program for schoolchildren, said Isnaeni, a mother of two. Prabowo loves people.
Still, Jokowi's implicit support was crucial, said analyst Kevin O'Rourke.
Jokowi was a major factor. It's mostly about him. And he has a formula that makes him popular: low inflation, spending on social services and infrastructure development, and an attitude people like, he said.
Social assistance or vote buying?
Observers have pointed to a worrying democratic backsliding in Indonesia, but Mr. Prabowos has alleged a dark past and criticism of dynastic politics appears to have little importance at the grassroots, where millions identify with the humble personality of Jokowi and the attention to ordinary Indonesians.
When the Constitutional Court, then headed by the president's brother-in-law, changed the eligibility rules allowing Mr. Gibran to run for vice president, the online outcry did not trigger massive protests in the streets.
Over the past month, Jokowi has visited Central Java at least three times to distribute fertilizer, rice and cash aid, raising questions about his declared neutrality.
It's pork, said Nur Hidayat Sardini, a lecturer at Dipenogoro University in Semarangs. Social assistance has been massive.
The impact on Mr. Ganjar's campaign, lamented PDI-P Bambang Wuryanto, was like a big bomb.
The government denied that only one candidate could benefit from the social assistance program. The president's office did not respond to questions about complaints about neutrality.
Sudaryono, from Mr. Prabowos' party, said the task was to convert that love into votes, adding that many Indonesians were attracted by the defense minister's pledge to continue Jokowi's policies.
But analysts believe that such continuity is far from guaranteed.
The vast majority of power rests in the president's office, Mr. O'Rourke said. And on October 20, this will change and Widodo will no longer be in power.
This story was reported by Reuters, with contributions from Ananda Teresia.
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