JAKARTA: Jakarta’s Christian governor who is standing trial for blasphemy was Wednesday fighting to cling on to his job in a high-stakes election seen as a test of religious tolerance in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama faces two prominent Muslim challengers in the race to lead the teeming capital of 10 million, as local elections take place around the country.
But the stakes in the Jakarta vote have been raised by allegations that Purnama, the city’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, insulted the Koran.
The claims drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests last year, and Purnama has been put on trial in a case criticised as unfair and politically motivated.
He has not been barred from running for re-election but his lead in opinion polls was dented for a period, and the vote is now seen as a test of whether pluralism and a tolerant brand of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country are being eroded.
“There is a battle between those who promote tolerance and those who promote intolerance,” Ismail Hasani, research director of rights group Setara Institute, told AFP.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) and were due to close at 1:00 pm (0600 GMT).
An early vote tally released in the afternoon should give an indication of how the candidates have performed although official results will not be announced until mid-March, and the vote is likely to go to an April run-off.
If Purnama does win the vote and is convicted of blasphemy, which could see him sentenced to up to five years in prison, he would not automatically be barred from holding office and could avoid jail for a long time by filing successive appeals.
Religious and ethnic tensions have made for a dirty race with “fake news” flooding social media, and thousands of security forces were deployed in the capital on election day.
The “fake news” has mainly targeted Purnama, and included claims that a free vaccination programme he backed was a bid to make girls infertile and reduce the population.
Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono said that officers were stationed at polling stations across the city and had not reported any problems in early voting.
“God willing, the election today will go smoothly,” he said.
The governor’s opponents are Agus Yudhoyono, the son of a former president, and ex-education minister Anies Baswedan, who also has powerful political backers.
About 100 other local elections will take place on Wednesday but the race in the capital is the most hotly contested, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls.
Purnama’s troubles began in September when he 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.
The controversy is a high-profile example of the religious intolerance that has become more common in Indonesia, where 90 percent of its 255 million inhabitants are Muslim, with a surge of attacks on minorities in recent years.
Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, won popularity for trying to improve traffic-choked, chaotic Jakarta by cleaning up rivers and demolishing red-light districts, although his combative style and controversial slum clearances sparked some opposition.
His support slipped after the blasphemy controversy erupted but has bounced back and most recent polls show him in the lead, although if the vote goes to a run-off he is seen as likely to lose. AFP