Indonesia capital votes for governor after divisive campaign

English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat - the world's premier pan-Arab daily.

Jakarta's Christian governor on Wednesday lost heavily to a Muslim former government minister in an election run-off, private polls indicated, after a divisive battle that has damaged Indonesia's reputation as a bastion of tolerant Islam.

Indonesia technically guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution but in reality only six religions are recognised and tough blasphemy laws control debate and target minorities.

Anies Baswedan won with 58 percent of the votes versus 42 percent for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his Chinese nickname as "Ahok", based on 100 percent of the votes in an unofficial "quick count" by Indikator Politik.

Other pollsters showed similar results.

Baswedan and Ahok are neck in neck in opinion polls released earlier this week. In February, he finished first in a field of three candidates with 43 percent of the vote.

Given Jakarta's outsized importance as both the nation's capital and commercial centre, the election is also viewed as a barometer for a 2019 presidential election.

Police in Jakarta were placed on high alert Monday ahead of the city's gubernatorial election after a campaign riven by sectarianism.

To head the challenge against this political "Superman", Uno approached Anies Baswedan to run for governor - a politician who was dumped by president Joko Widodo as education minister only months earlier.

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

While Indonesia's national motto is "unity in diversity" (Bhineka Tunggal Ika) the hardline Islamic community within Indonesia (a minority within the population) does not embrace this motto, or, they only embrace it as long as the motto works in their favor.

Wilson said the poll outcome could also be a setback for religous tolerance in terms of politics but that - in a large, diverse city like Jakarta - he did not think general tolerance was going to be under much threat.

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

About 7 million people are eligible to vote by 1 p.m. (0600 GMT), when polling stations close.

Around 36,000 officers are due to be on duty to safeguard polling stations and key buildings, National Police Chief Tito Karnavian told local media.

Hundreds of thousands flocked to protests against Ahok in Jakarta that derided his Chinese heritage and called for him to be imprisoned or killed.

Many of those who filled the streets of Jakarta to protest against him late a year ago were among the displaced, and violence broke out in Luar Batang after one of those demonstrations.

The election is seen by some analysts as a test of secular democracy in the world's most populous predominantly Muslim country.

If convicted, he faces a maximum five-year jail sentence, though could still govern while appeals are heard.

Even his running mate, current Deputy Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat, a Javanese Muslim, was kicked out of a mosque in Tebet, South Jakarta, on Friday (14/04) by Muslims who object to his long-running partnership with Ahok. He has won praise for cleaning up rivers clogged with rubbish, thereby reducing annual flooding in the capital city of 10 million people.

But all this changed when, in October past year, an edited video of Ahok telling a small crowd not to be "fooled" by those who use the Al-Maidah verse of the Quran to prevent Muslims from electing a non-Muslim leader went viral on social media.

  • Elsie Buchanan