JAKARTA - A tight and possibly ugly contest is expected in a second round election for governor of the Indonesian capital that will pit the minority Christian incumbent against a former cabinet minister backed by conservative Muslim clerics.
After months of campaigning dominated by religious and racial tensions, none of the three candidates vying to run Muslim-majority Indonesia's biggest city secured the 50 percent needed for an outright win, setting the stage for a run-off election in April.
Unofficial counts by research companies show the incumbent Gov Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, whose campaign was hurt by blasphemy charges, won about 43 percent of Wednesday's vote. Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a former education minister who courted conservative and hard-line Muslims, trailed by just three points.
Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the photogenic son of a former president, was a distant third with about 17 percent and eliminated from the contest, but how his supporters vote in the run-off will decide the result.
An escalation of the violence, racial bigotry and huge protests that overshadowed campaigning in November and December is feared in the capital ahead of the April vote. Religion and Ahok's Chinese ethnicity, rather than the slew of problems that face a car-clogged and sinking Jakarta, have transformed the contest for governor into a high-stakes tussle between conservatives, who want Islam to be ascendant in politics and society, and moderates.
With Yudhoyono defeated, Baswedan may soak up all anti-Christian and anti-Chinese votes, which could put him over 50 percent in April. However the tenacity of Ahok, who bounced back from the apparent political death sentence of blasphemy charges and trial, means he could still eke out a victory. Ahok rose from deputy governor in 2014 when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, then Jakarta governor, won Indonesia's presidential election.
Not all who voted for the Yudhyono will shift support to Baswedan on the basis of Ahok's Christian religion, said Achmad Sukarsono, an Indonesia analyst with Eurasia Group.
“This gives the minority politician an opportunity to pull some voters to his side and become the first elected non-Muslim to govern the capital of the world's populous Muslim country,” he said.
The blasphemy trial and the ease with which hard-liners attracted several hundred thousand to protest against Ahok in Jakarta in November and December have undermined Indonesia's reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam and shaken the centrist government of Jokowi.
Calls for Ahok to be killed and anti-Chinese sentiment were disturbing elements of the protests, one of which turned violent, with dozens injured and one person dying from the effects of tear gas. If convicted of blasphemy, he faces up to five years in prison.
“The first round issues of religion and ethnicity were ugly enough,” said Tobias Basuki, a political analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The run-off will be extremely ugly.”
During the 2014 presidential election campaign, opponents of Jokowi spread false stories he was Christian and of Chinese ancestry, Basuki said, but “this time around they don't need a hoax, they can just say Ahok is Chinese, Christian, an infidel and so on.”
Defeat for Ahok would also be a defeat for Indonesia's moderate political and religious leaders and further embolden hard-liners, who say a non-Muslim should not lead Muslims. The governorship is also seen as a launching pad into national politics and possibly the presidency.
Ahok had been popular because of his drive to eliminate corruption from the Jakarta administration and his efforts to make the city more livable. But brutal demolitions of some of the slum neighborhoods that are home to millions alienated the poor while ill-considered outspokenness proved to be another Achilles' heel.
Opponents seized their moment last year when a video surfaced of Ahok telling voters they were being deceived if they believed a specific verse in the Quran prohibited Muslims from electing a non-Muslim as leader.
It is hard to imagine voters that supported Yudhoyono because of his opposition to slum clearances switching to Ahok, said Hugo Brennan, Asia analyst at risk consultants Verisk Maplecroft.
But, he said, “it's all still to play for and much can happen between now and April.”