Indonesia's presidential race appears to have tightened dramatically less than a week before the election with credible polling showing front-runner and former Jakarta governor Joko Widodo having lost virtually all the formidable lead he had before his nomination.
Analysts say millions of undecided voters have turned to Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who has been accused of abducting pro-democracy activists in 1998 and instigating deadly riots.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Widodo, known for his down-to-earth demeanor and known as "Jokowi," says massive smear campaigns by his opponents have significantly reduced his electability. He was wondering how the government and law enforcers could not prevent it.
The latest blows to Widodo and running mate Jusuf Kalla were allegations that his mother was an activist with the banned Indonesian Communist Party, and an edict from the Forum Ummat Islam group saying "choosing Jokowi" is "Haram," or forbidden to Muslims.
But the most massive smear campaign was that a tabloid aimed at discrediting him was circulated among Islamic boarding schools in Java. "Obor Rakyat" or People's Torch abruptly described Jokowi as a non-Muslim of Chinese descent, corrupt and just a "puppet candidate" of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. It also painted him as being a liar with a long Pinocchio nose, and as a Singapore citizen. Widodo has told campaign supporters on several occasions that his parents were both natives of Java island.
The third edition of the tabloid prompted police to open a libel investigation and question the editor in chief, who is a staff assistant at the office of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. His ruling Democratic Party said it was neutral earlier but turned to support Subianto just two weeks before the July 9 election.
In other opposition activity, some of his rivals' supporters say electing Widodo will only leave Jakarta to be led by a non-Muslim governor — Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese who is currently acting governor.
Indonesia, a country of 240 million, is the world's most populous Muslim nation and the third-largest democracy in the world behind India and the United States.
"Indeed, the black campaigns have significantly reduced our electability, but they turned a blind eye on it," Widodo said, citing the police, the Electoral Supervisory Board and the government. "They should have courage to stop such campaigns, which have caused restlessness and instigated the people."
"But I am optimistic. We have been working hard, and what we found in the field raised our optimism. People everywhere are enthusiasm greeting us."
Analysts have warned that Widodo could also be defeated by organized and structural fraud.
A recent survey by Roy Morgan Research, Australia's best known and longest established market research company, found that the longtime favorite Jokowi has a narrow lead of 4 percentage points above Subianto.
Its face-to-face interviews of 3,117 electors in June in all 34 provinces put Widodo at 52 percent against 48 percent for Subianto, while 9 percent couldn't say who they will support. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 1.8 percent.
Local polls say Subianto is catching up two weeks before the July 9 vote, with around 40 percent of the electorate reported to be undecided. Almost 190 million Indonesia are expected to cast their ballots for the country's new president.
"Actually I do not really believe on the surveys, but they have to be taken into account for evaluation and corrections," said Widodo, a former furniture producer and newcomer to national politics, but adored by legions of supporters who favor his simple style, humble background and willingness to reach out to the poor.
Ahmad Muzani, deputy campaign chief for Subianto, did not agree that a smear campaign has diverted Widodo's supporters to their side, which he said has also become victim of unfair publication by local media.
"I think that happened because of mass campaigns by all our coalition parties in convincing the people," Muzani said.
Yudhoyono, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, has ordered the police and military to secure the presidential election and succession process of the national leadership, and to be alerts against all possible postelection violence.