With Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his main challenger Prabowo Subianto announcing their running mates for the April 2019 election, the stage is set for an extended campaign. These will be the fourth direct presidential elections since the end in 1998 of the three-decade-long military-backed dictatorship of Suharto. Both candidates are expected to unveil their road maps to give a boost to job-creation and reduce inequality in the largest economy in Southeast Asia. Equally, in a country with the largest Muslim population and also one whose population is extremely diverse, the two campaigns are shining a light on the larger struggle for pluralism. Mr. Widodo, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, is seeking a second term, and his choice of Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative Islamic cleric, as running mate appears to be aimed at averting the alienation of the more orthodox sections. A Muslim of Javanese descent, Mr. Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, was the target of a social media smear campaign in the 2014 elections, suggesting that he was an ethnic Chinese Christian and a member of the banned communist party. This attempt to tap into the resentment against the small but influential minority community is believed to have narrowed his victory margin. Four years ago, too, his rival was Mr. Prabowo, of Gerindra. An economic nationalist, he has denied the accusations against him of human rights violations while heading Indonesia’s special forces — charges that led to a ban on his entry into the U.S.
The electoral face-off between Mr. Widodo and Mr. Prabowo comes also against the backdrop of a highly charged gubernatorial race in Jakarta in 2017. The incumbent at that time, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, had succeeded Mr. Widodo when he became President in 2014 and was considered his protégé. Mr. Purnama, a Christian, narrowly lost the election after a hard-fought campaign in which hardline groups accused him of blasphemy. He was subsequently imprisoned on the charge. Mr. Prabowo and his running mate, Sandiaga Uno, had campaigned for Mr. Purnama’s rival at the time — but Mr. Widodo’s running mate, Mr. Amin, was a witness in the blasphemy trial. Differences between the moderate and hardline sections could get exacerbated ahead of the 2019 elections, particularly given the polarisation in a two-way contest. The onus is clearly on President Widodo and Mr. Prabowo to ensure that the airing of contrary political opinion does not cross the limits of civility and decency in this fledgling democracy. But Jokowi, as the candidate whose victory in 2014 inspired optimism about a break from politics-as-usual, perhaps has the greater responsibility to resist a tilt to appease hardline and intolerant opinion.