Indonesia's Jokowi is walking a tightrope as he tries to appeal to Muslim voters

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo. He is facing a difficult re-election amid increasing pressure from the country's conservative right.

(CNN)Indonesians this week got a taste of how far their outwardly secular President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, would go to buttress his reelection campaign against attacks from Islamic hardliners who don't see him as Muslim enough to lead.

Jihadi cleric Abu Bakar Bashir is currently facing a parole review after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence for facilitating a terror training camp. Bashir is best known as the "spiritual leader" of the homegrown terror network that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 people.
Jokowi's first instinct was to sympathize with the 81-year-old's ailing health. Family members say Bashir can no longer walk, and he likely does not have many years left.
    This concern was immediately rejected as misplaced and cynical by many of Jokowi's liberal supporters as well as hardliners who never believed he had the religious credentials to lead the world's largest Muslim nation, said Ian Wilson, an Indonesia expert at Australia's Murdoch University.
      "It was a poorly executed political gambit," Wilson said. "Jokowi could see Bashir's parole date was approaching but knew that he would never fulfill the requirements."
      Radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir talks at the Cilacap District Court on January 26, 2016 in Cilacap, Central Java, Indonesia.
      Offered freedom on the condition he swear loyalty to Indonesia's secular state, the radical preacher instead chose to remain locked up in the West Java jail cell where he once pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.
      "Bashir has never expressed guilt or remorse. Fundamentally he rejects Indonesian nationalism," Wilson said.
        This caused Jokowi -- walking an election tightrope with his liberal base on one side and an increasingly assertive religious right on the other -- to lose his footing. "The people he was trying to appeal to were never going to buy this," Wilson added.
        Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok" (left) and his campaign spokesman Ruhut Sitompul (right) wave to photographers after his trial for blasphemy at the North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta on December 13, 2016.

        Staying sacred

        On the opposite side of Jokowi's balancing act is another jailed man -- this time walking free.
        Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese Indonesian former governor of Jakarta known as Ahok, left prison Thursday, two years after the erstwhile Jokowi ally was jailed for blasphemy.
        A Christian, Ahok fell afoul of Indonesia's rigid blasphemy law during a 2016 rally when he quoted the Koran to assure Muslims there was no reason they could not vote for a non-believer. Tens of thousands turned out in mass street protests calling for him to be not only voted out of office, but jailed.
        According to Human Rights Watch, Ahok's treatment showed "non-Muslims ... need to be especially careful before making public comments about diversity and pluralism."
        If anything, the climate has only grown more tense in the years since.
        April's general election puts Jokowi up against Prabowo Subianto, a former general who has proven himself willing to leverage the President's links to Ahok against him.