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Prabowo asks supporters to reject result if Jokowi wins

Ex-general not willing to "accept an election that is stolen"; his team preparing legal challenge if he loses

Jakarta

STANDING up through the sunroof of a van, Prabowo Subianto leans down to shake hands and accept cash - sometimes bags of it - from tens of thousands of cheering supporters clogging up roads and sitting on rooftops. All of them are trying to get a glimpse of the man they want to be Indonesia's next president.

Donning a cowboy hat, the former Suharto-era general saluted the crowd as his car slowly snaked its way to a campaign stop in the capital of South Sumatra, a key battleground in the April 17 election. A similar scene broke out the next day in Solo, the hometown of President Joko Widodo, where a mix of young and old faces banged on his car and shouted his name with an air of fanaticism that has come to mark his campaign, now in its final days.

The enthusiasm on the campaign trail has Mr Prabowo convinced that polls showing him losing for a second time to Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, must be wrong. He has openly challenged supporters at rallies to reject the election result if the president wins a second five-year term.

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"We will not accept an election that is stolen," he said aboard his private plane between stops on the campaign. "If the powers that be want to cheat massively, they will be going against the will of the people."

Over two days of interviews, Mr Prabowo spoke about his ties with Islamic extremists, plans to review Chinese investments and his relationship with Indonesia's "one per cent".

While mainstream polls have Mr Jokowi, 57, leading by a significant though narrowing margin, Mr Prabowo, 67, has painted a vastly different picture of the electorate in South-east Asia's biggest economy. His campaign has said internal numbers indicate he has a 24-point lead on Jokowi, and it's already preparing a court challenge if the result doesn't go its way.

Mr Prabowo's claims are setting the stage for a disputed election result that could lead to discord following the result. His camp has demonstrated it can mobilise tens of thousands of supporters, which could potentially hinder Mr Jokowi's ability to utilise any political capital generated by his re-election.

While it's highly likely Mr Jokowi will win next week, Brexit and Donald Trump's election win have shown upsets do happen, according to Hugo Brennan, principal political analyst with Verisk Maplecroft. Every election since Indonesia introduced direct voting for president in 2004 has resulted in legal challenges, he added.

It "would be surprising if Prabowo didn't cry foul and petition the Constitutional Court," he said. "The prospect of protesters taking to the streets to oppose the result can't be entirely ruled out given the recent history of mass demonstrations in the capital."

Mr Jokowi's campaign said he was on pace to defeat Prabowo by 20 percentage points, and called on him to send witnesses to polling booths if he's concerned about cheating. Arya Sinulingga, a spokesman for Mr Jokowi, said: "Prabowo is already dividing our own nation by tricking some people into talking that there is fraud. This is not true at all."

Mr Prabowo helped bring Mr Jokowi to Jakarta, where he successfully ran for governor. He used that victory as a springboard to the presidency in 2014, when he defeated Mr Prabowo.

Both candidates have built campaign platforms around the economy. Mr Jokowi has vowed to create 100 million jobs over the next five years, while Mr Prabowo has promised tax cuts and to revive Indonesia's manufacturing industry.

Mr Prabowo also said he would seek to make Indonesia respected on the international stage, and doubled down on a promise to defend the national interest when it comes to China-backed investments such as a high-speed rail line.

When the conversation turns to religion in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation, he gets particularly agitated. He rejects allegations that he has benefited from a rise in religious conservatism. He insists he believes in "an Indonesia that is multi-racial and multi-religious".

Prabowo is now banking on a groundswell of support to carry him to victory. His nephew Aryo Djojohadikusumo, who is serving as the campaign's logistics director, said five years ago they could mobilise only a third of the crowds they see now. "It's a wave," he said. BLOOMBERG