JAKARTA: Jakarta’s Christian governor looked set for a tough run-off against a Muslim opponent in city elections seen as a test of religious tolerance in Muslim-majority Indonesia, after a tight first round Wednesday.
Analysts believe incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is standing trial for blasphemy, is unlikely to win in a second round against ex-education minister Anies Baswedan, as Muslim voters swing behind Anies.
Purnama, once the odds-on favorite to win the gubernatorial election, held a narrow lead of about 43 percent to Baswedan’s 39 percent in the first round, according to early vote tallies by private pollsters.
Baswedan exclaimed “Thanks be to God!” on learning of the tallies, adding: “At the end of the day, the people of Jakarta want change… this is not about the complexities of politics, it is about what matters in life.”
Third candidate Agus Yudhoyono, the son of a former president, was trailing far behind on about 17 percent, according to the pollsters. Official results will not be released for several weeks but the early tallies, known as “quick counts”, are regarded as reliable.
Local polls were taking place across Indonesia Wednesday but the race in the capital was the most hotly contested, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls.
Run-off elections will be held in April.
The stakes in the 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 was not barred from running but his popularity was dented for a period. 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.
Any run-off between Purnama and Baswedan—who courted hardline group the Islamic Defenders Front, which organised the anti-Purnama protests—could stoke religious tensions further after months of dirty campaigning, analysts warn.
“The two represent the main political forces in Indonedia,” said Burhanuddin Muhtadi of pollster Indikator, adding that Purnama was supported by progressive and liberal groups and his opponent by Islamists.
“The tense situation will continue until April — this kind of thing is dangerous.”
In the unlikely event that Purnama wins 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.
Authorities were taking no chances after the tense campaign, with thousands of police and troops deployed around the capital on election day.
Campaigning was marked by a flood of “fake news” which 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.
Purnama’s troubles began in September when he 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.
The controversy is a high-profile example of the religious intolerance that has become more common in Indonesia, 90 percent of whose 255 million inhabitants are Muslim. There has been a surge of attacks on minorities in recent years.
Purnama won popularity for trying to improve traffic-choked and chaotic Jakarta by cleaning up rivers and demolishing red-light districts, although his combative style and controversial slum clearances sparked some opposition. AFP