JAKARTA - Indonesia's raucous election season kicks off on Sunday with the promise of a fresh style of leadership in the world's third largest democracy, whose economic promise has been sapped by rampant graft, confusing policy and weak rule.
An uncertain election outlook abruptly changed on Friday when the main PDI-P opposition party named the hugely popular governor of Jakarta as its candidate for July's presidential election. That lifted even further its chances of dominating the parliamentary election on April 9.
Opinion polls suggest the presidency is governor Joko Widodo's to lose, with old-style contenders ex-general Prabowo Subianto and tycoon Aburizal Bakrie trailing far behind.
A hint of the euphoria attached to the nomination of the charismatic Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was shown in the 3.2 per cent jump in Jakarta share prices after the announcement. "(It was) driven by sentiment that Indonesia will have a good president who is willing to take difficult decisions, has a good and clean historical track record ... and most of all an expectation of a smooth transition of power," said Wilianto Ie, head of research at Maybank Kim Eng in Jakarta.
It will only be Indonesia's third direct election since it tumbled into democracy 16 years ago amid social and economic chaos in the wake of the downfall of former dictator Suharto.
Nearly 190 million Indonesians are registered to vote to choose a new parliament and so decide which parties meet a threshhold to field a candidate in the presidential election three months later.
Though close to 90 per cent of the population identifies itself as Muslim, none of the Islamic parties are expected to win a major chunk of the vote, including the current leading Muslim party, PKS, whose reputation has been hit hard by a highly publicised corruption scandal.
The ruling Democrat Party of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, restricted by the constitution from seeking a third term, has seen public support plummet to single digits after graft scandals claimed senior officials including the party's former chairman and a cabinet minister.
Critics say that while Yudhoyono brought stability to Indonesia, his nearly 10 years in power has been marked by indecision and at times confusing policy, with criticism that his government has not done enough to address high levels of poverty and mounting religious intolerance.
Economic growth since he took office has averaged around 5.8 per cent, high by global standards but well below what many see as Indonesia's potential and still heavily reliant on fluctuating prices of natural resources which remain the backbone of the economy.