JAKARTA - The popularity of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, the frontrunner for the July 9 presidential elections, has declined in recent weeks while that of his closest rival, former special forces general Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party, is rising fast.
The trend, first noticed in internal surveys by Mr Joko's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), has now been confirmed by respected pollster Saiful Mujani in its latest opinion poll released on Sunday.
Saiful Mujani found that the ratings of Mr Joko, 52, popularly known as Jokowi, had dropped from 52 per cent in March to 47 per cent last month if there was a three-way presidential contest against Mr Prabowo, 62, and Golkar chair Aburizal Bakrie, 67.
On the other hand, Mr Prabowo's numbers have shot up from 23 per cent in March to 32 per cent last month. Mr Bakrie's ratings fell from 11 per cent in March to 9 per cent in April.
"In the next two months, Jokowi could be defeated by Prabowo if he picks a wrong running mate and loses out in campaign strategy," the survey said.
Observers, like Paramadina University political scientist Djayadi Hanan, say Mr Joko's popularity kept increasing up to the time he was named a candidate in mid-March, as the public considered him a good alternative to the old faces. But it dipped as Mr Joko did not say much about his plans after that.
By contrast, Mr Prabowo's attacks on Mr Joko and the former general's image as a strong leader have helped shore up support.
Mr Joko's PDI-P has now shifted gears to counter these developments. Party chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri has now given him more leeway to run his campaign to counter allegations he would be a token president if elected, and Mr Joko has started speaking up - if slowly - about his plans.
Last week, the Jakarta Governor told reporters he would gradually scrap hefty fuel subsidies and channel the funds to the poor over the next four years if elected.
PDI-P deputy secretary-general Hasto Kristianto says Mr Joko's campaign has also moved from low-key visits to residents to open meetings.
"We understand Jokowi's popularity declined because we had been applying polite politics and were not being too active. Now we are changing it," Mr Hasto said.
Over the weekend, Mr Joko visited several Islamic boarding schools across Java to meet key religious leaders from the two major Muslim groups, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, with 40 million and 30 million members respectively.
Paramadina University's Dr Djayadi Hanan told The Straits Times Mr Joko still needs to spell out his ideas and plans in a clear language to retain the public's confidence in him.
Political scientist Ali Azhar of Udayana University in Bali said Mr Joko had appeared unconvincing during recent walkabouts, "as if he were not ready to be President".
"He needs to improve his style… to have the look of someone with a firm bearing," he added.
Mr Sirojudin Abbas, a researcher at Saiful Mujani, said Mr Joko's chances of staying on top would be helped if he chooses a popular running mate - like former constitutional court chief justice Mahfud MD, 56; former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, 71; or state-owned enterprise minister and media mogul Dahlan Iskan, 62.
Mr Joko is expected to announce the decision nearer the May 20 deadline for nominating tickets.
"A significant portion of Prabowo's voters are also supporters of either one of these three figures," Mr Sirojudin said.
Mr Prabowo, for his part, has not been sitting still as he reaches out to possible coalition partners to shore up his chances.
He hosted Mr Bakrie to his ranch on Monday, prompting speculation Mr Bakrie could be his running mate.
This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.
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