IN A shady shop porch in central Medan, the biggest city in the province of North Sumatra, votes are being counted. A young man tirelessly unfolds each ballot, holds it up and announces the candidates marked to a handful of onlookers. Behind him, a woman wearing a floral hijab tallies the votes on a large piece of paper that is taped to the shop’s bright blue wall. Polling monitors from assorted political parties count along too. The main race on the ballot, for governor, pits Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the candidate of a coalition led by the president’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, against Edy Rahmayadi, who is backed by an alliance of Islamist and nationalist parties. Early estimates suggest Mr Edy will win easily.
In all, provinces accounting for 175m of Indonesia’s 260m people went to the polls on June 27th, including the four most populous: West, East and Central Java, and North Sumatra. The president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, had hoped for a strong performance by his allies ahead of a presidential and parliamentary vote in April next year. By and large, the results were promising for him: candidates backed by PDI-P, or in a similar mould to the president, swept Java. But the result in North Sumatra, a province Jokowi won narrowly in the presidential election of 2014, gives an indication of how his opponents might forge a winning coalition.
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Mr Edy’s victory is relevant to next year’s presidential race for three reasons. First, the local candidates echoed the probable presidential ones. Like Jokowi, Mr Djarot is a reformist, who promised to fight corruption and bring transparency to the regional government. Mr Edy, meanwhile, is a former army general, as is Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s opponent at the last presidential election, who is likely to run against him again next year. Mr Edy also appeals to more conservative Muslims. For his final rally he held a communal prayer, while Mr Djarot opted for political speeches followed by live music.
Second, the partisan alliances in North Sumatra resemble the likely national coalitions next year. As well as PDI-P, Mr Djarot was backed by the United Development Party, a mildly Islamic outfit. More or less the same nationalist and Muslim parties that backed Mr Prabowo in 2014 backed Mr Edy.
Third, the election was marred by what Indonesians call “black campaigns”. On social media supporters of Mr Edy shared a doctored photo that seemed to show Mr Djarot being served a pig’s head at a banquet. One supporter of Mr Edy claimed, without any evidence, that Chinese migrants had been shipped into Medan to skew the vote. These smears resemble widespread allegations that Jokowi is a closet Christian, or has licensed the building of umpteen churches while restricting the construction of mosques.
However, similar falsehoods did not prevent Ridwan Kamil, the modernising mayor of Bandung, from winning the governorship of West Java, a province of 47m people. Although he was not PDI-P’s candidate, he has a similar outlook to Mr Jokowi. His main opponent, Sudrajat, was another former general backed by Mr Prabowo and PKS, a conservative Muslim party. He received only 30% of the vote, even though West Java is reputed to be a conservative stronghold and plumped for Mr Prabowo in 2014.
As the result in West Java suggests, voters’ choices in provincial elections may not always square with their presidential preferences. Batma, a housewife in south Medan, explains that she opted for Mr Edy because he is most likely to help the unemployed. But she says she will still vote for Jokowi in April.
Presidential candidates must formally register by August 10th. To secure a spot on the ballot, they must have the support of parties that won at least a fifth of the seats in parliament or a quarter of the popular vote at the last election. The next six weeks will see a flurry of activity as Jokowi and others try to put together an adequate coalition. Picking a running-mate from a wavering party can be one way to win the needed support.
Ultimately, though, the pairings will need to appeal to voters. Outside a polling station in a well-to-do part of Medan, Ela Wijayo, a lawyer sporting a bejewelled hijab and a shiny gold handbag, waxes lyrical about Mr Edy’s piety. Maybe Jokowi can find an even more godly sidekick.