News & Politics

Jakarta Voters Go to Polls in Religiously Tinged Election for Governor

A polling station under a bridge in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Wednesday. The incumbent, Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is trying to become the city’s first directly elected non-Muslim leader. Credit Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press
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Millions of voters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, went to the polls on Wednesday to settle a bitterly contested race for governor that is widely seen as a test of religious and ethnic tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

The incumbent, Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian, is in a tight race, polls suggest, with Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education and culture, who is Muslim.

Mr. Basuki’s candidacy has been hobbled by a criminal trial in which he was accused of blasphemy against Islam. He and his supporters say the court case – prompted by mass demonstrations in the capital by hard-line Islamic groups demanding he be prosecuted, or publicly lynched – were orchestrated by his political opponents to sabotage his campaign.

But the governor rallied to win a first-round election in February with 43 percent of the vote. Mr. Anies surged in the final weeks of that campaign to place second with 40 percent, seizing on strong debate performances and by touting his Muslim faith, analysts said.

Because neither candidate secured more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright, a second round is being held to determine the victor. Mr. Basuki, who is ethnic Chinese, is only the second non-Muslim governor of Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million people, and is trying to become its first directly elected non-Muslim leader.

Popularly known as Ahok, he was elevated from deputy governor in 2014 after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, won the country’s presidential election. Indonesia has more than 190 million Muslims, and smaller numbers of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists among its 250 million people.

Crucial issues among Jakarta’s nearly seven million voters include public education, health care, transportation, infrastructure development, and chronic flooding problems.

But these were overshadowed during the campaign by issues of religion and race in a manner scarcely seen before in Indonesia’s democratic era, with anti-Chinese and anti-Christian slurs having been widely spread on social media in recent months. Some local mosques posted banners saying it was forbidden for Muslims to vote for a non-Muslim candidate.

Mr. Basuki was named a blasphemy suspect by the police after lightheartedly citing a verse in the Quran last September that warns Muslims against taking Christians and Jews as friends. He said that, given Indonesia’s transition to democracy in the late 1990s, it would be acceptable for Muslims to cast ballots for a Christian.

At a polling station in the Jakarta district of Menteng Pulo, which contains a mix of affluent, middle-class and poor families, there was vocal support for both candidates.

“He’s done a good job and he’s been firm,” Syamsiah, a 49-year-old woman who was wearing an Islamic head scarf, or hijab, said of Mr. Basuki. “He didn’t do anything on purpose against the Quran, and I am worried this could divide the nation.”

Standing nearby was her uncle, Mislam, 69, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. He said he did not care whether Mr. Basuki was Christian and voted for Mr. Anies because “he’s smart and I think he’s going to do better.”

However, Ferry Hellmann, a 45-year-old auto repair shop owner who was dressed in traditional Islamic attire, said he voted for Mr. Anies on religious grounds. “That’s because of my faith – I’m Muslim,” he said, although he added that he was not opposed to non-Muslim politicians.

Astro Girsang, a 46-year-old lawyer, said he voted for Mr. Basuki because of his track record as governor, crediting him with improving traffic, easing flooding problems and cleaning up city streets. The lawyer also criticized the protests by Islamic groups, which espoused the view that a Christian should never govern the Indonesian capital. Source: nytimes

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