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THE campaign to be Jakarta’s next governor was set to be a showcase of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy. Now it may become an affront to it. On November 16th police investigating complaints of blasphemy against the incumbent and front-runner, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, said they were formally declaring him a suspect. Ahok, a Christian, is said to have insulted the Koran—a grave charge in overwhelmingly Muslim Indonesia. Although Ahok insists he will remain a candidate and will not step down, the case is certain to dominate the rest of the campaign (the election is on February 15th) and could have far-reaching implications for Indonesian democracy beyond it.
As vice-governor, Ahok became governor automatically when Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, was elected president in 2014. His rise to one of the country’s most prominent political posts and his lead in voting polls had been touted as proof of Indonesia’s tolerance. But a speech he gave to fishermen in late September has set off a sectarian furore. Ahok appeared to suggest that any attempt to dissuade Muslims from voting for him by citing a verse in the Koran that warns Muslims against taking Christians and Jews as allies was deceitful. He has apologised for his comments, insisting—not unreasonably—that he was criticising not the verse itself, but the use to which it was being put.
Muslim protest groups, however, accused him of denigrating the word of God. They stirred up outrage through social media and filed complaints with the police. The Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, a Muslim vigilante outfit, organised an unusually large protest—of more than 100,000 people—in Jakarta on November 4th. Many carried placards calling for the governor to be jailed, or worse.
Hitherto, Indonesian Muslims have not been easily swayed by sectarian arguments. Hardline groups such as FPI have staged rallies against Ahok for years, but they have rarely drawn much of a crowd or done much to reduce his popularity. Yet Ahok’s comments about the Koran seem to have offended many. The most recent opinion polls suggest that his lead in the race for governor may be slipping.
The fuss is not all, or even mostly, about religion. Ahok’s political opponents have been eager to exploit mounting tensions. Moderate Muslim groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama told their supporters to stay away from the protest, but politicians associated with the campaigns of Ahok’s two rivals in the election attended, all the same, along with tens of thousands of people bused in from outside the capital.
Being named a suspect need not lead to formal charges, but usually does. Indonesia’s blasphemy law is worryingly woolly, allowing courts to punish words or actions deemed “hostile” to religion by up to five years in prison. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch reckons it is “very likely” that Ahok would be found guilty, based on precedent. In the dozens of blasphemy cases to go to trial since 2004 the defendant has always been convicted, Mr Harsono notes. Even if the courts were to clear Ahok, Indonesia’s reputation for successfully combining Islam and democracy is unlikely to escape unharmed.