Religion and politics mix as Jakarta votes

20 April, 2017, 07:18 | Author: Jonathon Greene
  • Jakarta election exposes deep political, religious divide

Polls opened Wednesday in Jakarta's election run-off with the Christian governor fighting for his job despite standing trial for blasphemy, in a vote that has stoked religious tensions in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is of Chinese heritage, trailed former education minister Anies Baswedan by at least 10 percentage points, with more than 80% of the ballots counted.

The election battle has highlighted the growing strength of hard-line Islamic groups in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

A high turnout is expected among Jakarta's more than 7 million eligible voters, as Wednesday was declared a public holiday.

The allegations drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests past year, and led to Purnama - known by his nickname Ahok - being put on trial for blasphemy in a case critics see as politically motivated.

Baswedan and Ahok are neck in neck in opinion polls released earlier this week. Anies and Sandi have three main important tasks to accomplish once they take office: reconciling the city after a polarising hard-fought election fraught with religious and racial overtones, maintaining Jakarta residents' satisfaction with the city's government, and actualising the social welfare programmes they promised to roll out during the campaign.

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

The verse has been at the centre of the current blasphemy trial of Ahok who has accused his detractors of using it in a bid to persuade Muslims not to vote for non-Muslims.

As deputy Jakarta governor in 2014, Ahok inherited the governorship from Joko Widodo who won the presidential election that year. "Jakarta is home for all of us", Ahok said in a statement.

Private pollsters, approved by the national elections commission, are tabulating a sample of votes known as "quick counts".

A series of massive protests, the largest being attended by more than 200,000 Muslims, were staged to call for Ahok's arrest for the alleged blasphemy.

However, Muslim hardliners, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), began to campaign against him, telling voters it is unlawful to vote for an "infidel" or a non-Muslim.

The defeat is also a blow for President Joko Widodo, whose party had backed Purnama.

Keith Loveard, an analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, said it will be "a potent force". Ahok has run on a track record of tackling corruption and accelerating infrastructure projects, while Baswedan has pledged to boost growth by allowing more private-sector participation in the economy. Ahok's rival Baswedan was supported by the political and business elite that Jokowi unexpectedly bested in the 2014 presidential election and who will be seeking to unseat him in 2019.

Mr Purnama won the first round in February with 43% of the vote, while Mr Baswedan had 40%.

Ahok congratulated his opponent and told a televised news conference: 'We now will come together and forget this campaign.

That case is ongoing - on Thursday Ahok will hear prosecutors read their sentencing demands in court - and it has significantly dented his popularity.

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