On eve of Indonesia vote, defence minister ahead despite protests

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By Ananda Teresia

JAKARTA (Reuters) -Indonesia finalised complex logistics for Wednesday's election across thousands of islands, with defence minister and former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto frontrunner in the race to win power in the world's third-largest democracy.

It was unclear, however, whether Prabowo would be able get the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff.

His cause was not helped by protests on Monday from hundreds of students and activists accusing his current boss, the wildly popular outgoing President Joko Widodo, of abusing power to back the minister's third tilt at the top job.

The 72-year-old Prabowo, who was in the military under late strongman Suharto, led two recent opinion polls with more than 50% against ex-governors Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo. However, the margin of error still left open the possibility of a June runoff if he falls short of a simple majority.

Prabowo's vice-presidential running mate is the 36-year-old son of the president.

Nearly 205 million Indonesians are registered to vote.

The president, known as Jokowi, has not explicitly endorsed any candidate but has made highly publicised appearances with Prabowo, including at some state events, interpreted by many as a tacit endorsement even though he beat him at the last two elections.

Also, Jokowi's eldest son became Prabowo's running mate after a last-minute decision by a court headed by Jokowi's brother-in-law to change election rules.

Jokowi's allies have insisted the president had no involvement in the court decision, and he has denied favouring any candidate in the election.

Indonesia's election law allows leaders to campaign for any candidate as long as state resources are not used and they take official leave to do so. But incumbents have tended to stay neutral in the past.

'NEW ORDER' RECALLED

To activists, though, the pre-election events represent a worrying backsliding on hard-won democratic gains made after the fall of the "New Order" era of Suharto's decades-long rule before he was toppled in 1998.

"We don't want the New Order to return," Sulistyowati Irianto, law professor at the University of Indonesia, said during an event on Monday, referring to Jokowi's perceived involvement in the election.

Some critics say discontent with Jokowi could chip away at public trust for Prabowo. "It might be translated into Prabowo losing some votes but not sure how many percent," said Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch.

Indonesia has entered a cooling-off period until voting day, with candidates barred from campaigning.

Running an election is a gargantuan task: the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands stretches across three times zones.

Some 200,000 security personnel will be on guard.

Officials have delivered ballot boxes and papers to far-flung regions, in some cases by boat, helicopter or ox-drawn carts.

The weather agency has warned about the risk of heavy rains in West Java on polling day, media reported. Meanwhile, the election commission has postponed voting in ten villages in the Demak area in Central Java due to flooding.

Voting in Paniai regency of Central Papua province could also be delayed after frustrated residents in the area burned ballot papers and boxes because of missing supplies.

(Writing by Ed Davies and Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Kay Johnson and Andrew Cawthorne)