For the second time in as many votes, the “Islamic factor” is expected to play a key role in the outcome of Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. The latest local poll suggests that a run-off vote for the city's de-facto mayor on Wednesday is too close to call.
The run-off quickly became a continuation of a struggle that emerged in the initial vote, when moderates favoring a pluralistic society faced off against conservatives eager for Islam to dominate politics and society in Indonesia's huge capital city.
Violence and protests marked campaigning before a three-way vote in February that left the current governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who is ethnically Chinese and a Christian, pitted against Anies Baswedan, who is Muslim. With only 164,255 votes separating the two, and third-place candidate Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono holding a 17-percent share of the vote, neither Purnama nor Baswedan won a majority, and a run-off was required.
This stage of the campaign has been punctuated on social media by the frequent use of a word once heard only rarely in public discourse in Jakarta — “kafir,” or heathen, to describe Purnama and the voters supporting him, even those who are Muslim. Banners commanding “Don't vote for a heathen” hang throughout Jakarta, the capital of a Muslim-majority nation that recognizes all citizens' right to freedom of religion.
The change in the tone of the campaign reflects Baswedan's changing views. The former education minister in the government of President Joko Widodo has courted conservative and hard-line Muslims. While he once described the Defenders of Islam Front (FPI) as a radical group, photos of him with the FPI chairman taken in January remain popular on social media. After the first round of voting, local media reports said he suggested there may have been fraud at polling stations in predominantly ethnic-Chinese areas.
Baswedan “has changed his views very much on issues of pluralism and tolerance,” said Sarah Shair-Rosenfield, an assistant professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, who studies Indonesian elections.
“The election, for many, seems like a sort of question for Jakarta — and perhaps to a wider extent for Indonesia — about whether or not it is acceptable to have a non-Muslim as governor of the country’s largest city.”
Purnama, popular with middle-class residents for his work to curtail corruption and improve the quality of life, is a so-called “double-minority” in a majority-Muslim nation. He was accused of blasphemy, a criminal offense, last year, and his trial before a panel of judges continues; a verdict has been delayed until the day following the run-off vote. Purnama has apologized for his comments and denied any wrongdoing.
Protests by hardliners against Purnama have left many “concerned about the future of pluralism in Indonesia,” said Jeremy Menchick, an assistant professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, whose book Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism was published last year. “There’s also a perception that intolerance is winning.”
Shair-Rosenfield suggested that while public support for groups such as the FPI fluctuates, “it is a little concerning” to see candidates who are “willing to make deals with hardliners.”
Both academics said the race is close, a perception borne out by a survey conducted between March 31 and April 5 by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC). It puts Baswedan as the front-runner, based on 47.9 percent of the respondents saying they would vote for him. Purnama stood at 46.9 percent, and the survey noted that 5.2 percent of voters remained undecided.
“The gap between them is too narrow, so we cannot say that Anies [Baswedan] is leading,” SMRC researcher Deni Irfani said on Wednesday.
According to the survey, 32.4 percent of Baswedan’s voter base cited “similar religion” as the reason they would vote for him. More than 40 percent of Purnama’s base credited his track record in governing the city as the factor that earned their votes.
Local media have reported the Jakarta Military Command, the Jakarta police and the Jakarta Public Order Agency will have as many as 64,000 officers deployed for Wednesday's vote.
"Each polling station will be guarded by a police officer and an army officer," and other personnel will be stationed throughout the capital, the military commander of Jakarta, Major General Jaswandi, has told reporters.
This report originated from VOA's Indonesian Service.