In the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, better known as Ahok, is battling to retain his seat.
Ahok, a Christian from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, is clinging to a slight lead in the polls against Anies Baswedan, the former education minister, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of a former president.
Ahok was favourite to win the vote until he became embroiled in a blasphemy scandal. Accused of insulting Islam, he has been forced to defend what many believe are politically motivated charges.
Mass protests by religious hardliners and the legal proceedings that followed have led some observers to view Wednesday’s election as a test of Indonesia’s much-touted commitment to pluralism.
“I think this is going to be a litmus test of Indonesian Islam,” said Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Are we tolerant or intolerant?”
The blasphemy case against Ahok came about following immense public pressure from demonstrations organised at the behest of hardline Islamists.
Rumours abound that powerful political interests helped fund and mobilise the protests to chip away at Ahok’s strong popularity.
“You cannot underestimate the effect, the significance of this primordialism and the politicisation of religion in order to achieve political ends [by] those who use religion to win the election,” said Aleksius Jemadu, dean of political science at Jakarta’s Pelita Harapan University.
The effect has been decidedly damaging for Ahok, a straight-talking sometimes brash leader credited with delivering positive changes in the city including mitigating floods, cutting red tape and driving infrastructure projects.
Ahok’s lead has been steadily eroded and at times eclipsed by his contenders. His poll standing has rebounded in recent weeks but remains tenuous. A poll in December 2016 showed how effectively a conservative religious base had been galvanised against him.
Saiful Manjani Research and Consulting (SMRC) found that 45 per cent of Indonesians believed the remarks at the centre of Ahok’s troubles were blasphemous but 88 per cent admitted they weren’t exactly sure what he had said.
Ahok’s electoral rivals have aggressively courted the Islamic vote – visiting mosques and religious leaders, donning Muslim garb and, in the case of Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, even controversially meeting the head of a hardline Islamic group.
“I think the most critical issue is the unstoppable politicisation – how strong the motivation and aim of Ahok’s enemies is to prevent him from winning by capitalising on this issue of insulting religion,” noted Jemadu of the dynamics at play. At a time when the country is grappling with the relationship between religion and state, the blowback has also churned up underlying resentment against Indonesia’s often wealthier Chinese ethnic minority.
Racist, anti-Chinese memes have been circulated online – some even branding Ahok a communist, a damning insult in Indonesia. One reason the Jakarta governorship is so hotly contested is the potential bearing it is perceived to have on the presidency.
The current president, Joko Widodo, held the post before being elected head of state in 2014 which catapulted his then deputy, Ahok, into the governorship.
At time of writing Ahok stands at around 39 per cent in the polls. Without receiving the more than 50 per cent needed to win on Wednesday, he would have to fight out a second round where his chances could be significantly worse. “If it goes to a second round,” Basuki said, “it will be very ugly.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
election a measure of religious tolerance