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Indonesian presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo runs on the stage after delivering a speech in front of his supporters at Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta July 5, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside(reuters_tickers)
By Kanupriya Kapoor
JAKARTA (Reuters) - The front-runner in Wednesday's Indonesian presidential election has flown to Mecca on a whirlwind pilgrimage in a last-ditch bid to win voters among the world's largest Muslim population and put to rest damaging suggestions that he is really a Christian.
Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has seen his huge early lead in polls narrow sharply in what has become Indonesia's dirtiest and tightest presidential race in the face of a sharp and well-financed campaign by his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto.
Some opinion polls show the July 9 race is now too close to call.
The pilgrimage could mean the difference between winning and losing the presidency after a smear campaign suggesting Jokowi was an ethnic-Chinese Christian hurt his popularity.
The suggestion is politically ruinous in a society where more than 90 percent of people are native Indonesians and adhere to Islam. Jokowi is both Muslim and an indigenous Indonesian. [ID:nL4N0P00LA]
That the accusations have stuck is as much a reflection of what many analysts have criticised as a disorganised, stumbling Jokowi campaign as it is of his rival's skills.
Even members of the Jokowi campaign complain that the main party backing him, Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), has failed to galvanise its millions of supporters in the run-up to the vote.
The PDI-P received similar criticism for the way it ran the campaign ahead of April's parliamentary election, when the party came out top but with far fewer votes than expected.
Pictures of Jokowi, clad in white robes and praying in Islam's religious centre, Mecca, circulated on social media on Monday while TV images showed the 53-year-old performing the ritual act of walking around the Kabaa, a holy site in the Saudi Arabian city.
Indonesians are among the world's most voracious users of social media which has become a key platform to reach young voters who represent about a third of the electorate. Both candidates have relied on Facebook and Twitter to get across their message.
Overt displays of religious piety too have grown sharply in recent years after being largely discouraged during the long-autocratic rule of Suharto which ended in 1998 and who saw Islamic extremism as a threat.
One sign is the surge in pilgrimages to Mecca, one of the so-called five pillars of Islam which all Muslims should try to carry out at least once if possible.
The waiting list in Jakarta alone to go on the full pilgrimage, or haj, is more than 10 years for the basic package which costs around 35 million rupiah ($3,000), about the same as Indonesia's average per capita income in a year.
Jokowi's trip is not the complete haj. Many pilgrims seek to visit Mecca during the fasting month of Ramadan, which began on June 29.
"This is a good strategy to counter the effect (of the negative campaign), especially in West Java," said Adriana Elisabeth, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
West Java, which represents around 20 percent of the national vote and is home to some of the country's most conservative Muslim groups, is a key battleground in the election in the world's third biggest democracy. [ID:nL4N0PF27K]
"It's not too late to try and convince people that he is a true Muslim. In fact, voters will remember this act when they go (to vote) on Wednesday," Elisabeth added.
The election body has imposed a three-day "quiet period" banning active campaigning immediately before the election. But by going to Mecca and making sure TV cameras come along, Jokowi can guarantee publicity without breaking the rules against campaigning.
One of his key supporters owns a major TV channel.
Jokowi undertook a similar last-minute pilgrimage before the 2012 election for the post of Jakarta governor, which was also marred by ethnic and religious tensions. He won.
Jokowi is due back in Jakarta on Tuesday morning, a campaign official told Reuters.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher, Simon Webb and Clarence Fernandez)