Jakarta votes for governor amid religious tension

Jakarta votes for governor amid religious tension
The vote has become a test of whether the traditional, tolerant brand of Islam in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country is under threat from the rising influence of hardliners

JAKARTA, Indonesia (2nd UPDATE) – Jakarta’s Christian governor Wednesday, April 19 looked set to lose to a Muslim former government minister in a divisive run-off election that has stoked religious tension in Muslim-majority Indonesia. 

Anies Baswedan was on 56-57% in the race to lead Jakarta compared to 41-43% for incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, who is fighting for his job as he stands trial for blasphemy, according to a sample of votes counted by several private pollsters. 

The vote is seen as a test of whether the moderate Islam traditionally practiced in the world’s most populous Muslim country is under threat from the influence of hardliners, who have led mass demonstrations against Ahok.

Ahok, the city’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, won in the first round in February but not by a big enough margin to avoid a run-off. The race is significant as politicians see the job as a stepping stone to the presidency at 2019 polls.

High stakes

The stakes were raised even more dramatically by a controversy sparked by claims that Ahok insulted the Koran.

The allegations drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims, led by hardline group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests last year, and led to Ahok being put on trial for blasphemy in a case critics see as politically motivated.

After casting his ballot at a polling station in north Jakarta, Ahok made clear the importance of the vote. 

“Today’s election decides the future of Jakarta,” said the governor, who has seen a once-unassailable poll lead shrink amid the blasphemy controversy. “The military and the police are guaranteeing security, so don’t be afraid to come out.”

Polls opened at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) and closes at 1:00 pm (0600 GMT), with over 7.2 million people registered to vote. 

After an anti-Ahok protest last year turned violent, authorities are taking no chances and over 60,000 security forces had been deployed.

Hardline groups had pledged to station monitors at polling booths but police moved to ban the plan, warning it could cause “intimidation”.

Tolerance test 

The early vote tallies from private pollsters released in the afternoon is usually an accurate indication of how the candidates have performed although official results will not be announced until early May.

Despite Ahok’s first-round victory, former education minister Baswedan, 47, was initially seen as the favourite in the run-off because the votes from a third, Muslim candidate who was knocked out were expected to go to him.

But with tension over the governor’s alleged blasphemy subsiding in recent weeks, Ahok has regained momentum. Recent polls show the two candidates almost neck and neck, although most put Baswedan ahead by a wafer-thin margin.

Baswedan, an academic, has been accused of abandoning his moderate Islamic values during the campaign by cozying up to hardliners in a bid to win the support of Muslim voters angered by Ahok’s alleged blasphemy.

Ahok’s troubles began in September when he lightheartedly said in a speech that his rivals were tricking people into voting against him using a Koranic verse, which some interpret as meaning Muslims should only choose Muslim leaders.

His long-running blasphemy trial began in December, and the verdict is expected within a few weeks.

If he does win the vote and is convicted of blasphemy, he would not automatically be barred from holding office and could avoid jail for a long time by appealing.

Many voters still back Ahok due to his record leading Jakarta since 2014. He has won praise for cleaning up the city’s once-filthy rivers and creating more green spaces, although his acerbic style has upset some.

“I voted for Ahok because I’m poor and I have felt the difference – we’re being taken care of,”  said Tayem, a 62-year-old housewife who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, after casting her ballot.

But some have been swayed by the blasphemy controversy.

“As a Muslim, I will choose according to my faith,” Elva Sativia, a 33-year-old housewife, told AFP.


According to Teneo Intelligence, a global advisory firm, said there is speculation that should Ahok win, he could be President Joko Widodo’s vice-presidential running mate in 2019, although finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is also considered a possibility.

“A victory by Ahok could cause FPI to re-mobilize, to pressure the courts to convict him, which could eventually cause him to lose his post depending on the outcome of the likely appeal,” it also said.

“However, it would also be seen as a win for Widodo and the overall attempts of the administration to moderate the sentiments generated by the elections.”

It added, “Should Baswedan win, it could cause even some of the more mainstream political parties, or those whose base could eventually co-opted by FPI, to shift to a more nationalist orientation, both in economic and social policy, to protect their voter bases.”

It also said it could affect the 2019 elections.

“Where the uncertainty is greater, but potentially more significant, is how far the Jakarta elections could push race and religion into becoming national political issues, and affect the behavior of political parties as they gear up for the 2019 General Elections.” –with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

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