JAKARTA - Indonesia's general election campaign has officially kicked off, drawing tens of thousands of voters to stadiums, open fields and convention centres across the archipelago for rallies.
Vehicle convoys of supporters bearing party flags also drove through major streets, attracting cheers at the start of a three-week campaign period ahead of the April 9 general election.
Party chiefs fanned out across the country for the rallies on Sunday, but for presidential aspirant Joko Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), it was time to establish his nationalist credentials by visits to three key museums before meeting several thousand residents at an afternoon rally.
He started out at the National Awakening Museum in Jakarta where 105 years ago, a group of medical students formed a political society to lift the lot of their countrymen under Dutch rule.
"Our national awakening started here, and here we hope a new Indonesian revival, for a great Indonesia, will begin," he said to cheers. Mr Joko's route included two historic buildings where young nationalists pledged a united Indonesia in 1928 and where leaders crafted the independence proclamation in 1945.
His naming as the PDI-P's candidate by party chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri last Friday has caused some unease among a minority of party loyalists who feel that only a descendant of founding leader Sukarno shares the same commitment to the country, with some of them saying they would sit out the election.
But PDI-P deputy secretary-general Hasto Kristianto said the anniversary of Mr Joko's birth, June 21 in 1961, was the same as that of Sukarno's death in 1970. He told The Straits Times: "Ibu Mega has said our nation should look to its historical roots, and a leader can be strong by understanding the grand ideas that shaped us."
Similar appeals to nationalism were made by the PDI-P's main contenders. Gerindra party patron Prabowo Subianto, who opinion polls tip to be Mr Joko's main contender in the July presidential polls, told a rally in Sragen, Central Java: "Many leaders today only think of ways to deceive the people, not ways to improve their welfare. They want Indonesia to be led by puppets, because they want Indonesians to be poor and slaves in their own land."
Mr Prabowo had claimed that in naming Mr Joko as presidential candidate, Ms Megawati had reneged on a secret deal in 2009, when he ran as her vice-presidential candidate, to support him in this year's presidential polls in return.
Golkar party chairman Aburizal Bakrie told a rally in Serang, Banten, that only his party had the track record to make Indonesia a prosperous nation, citing the Suharto era. "Indonesia has over 240 million people, we cannot lose out to foreigners," he added.