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Jakarta election exposes deep political, religious divides
Jakarta Globe - April 16, 2017
Surveys have shown the race tightening to a statistical dead heat, with incumbent Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, closing in on rival Anies Baswedan, a former education minister.
Ahok is standing trial on blasphemy charges stemming from the divisive campaign that also featured mass rallies led by Islamist hardliners and alleged plots to overthrow President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.
The Jakarta election is viewed as a larger choice ahead of a 2019 presidential poll between the secular policies Indonesia has practiced since its post-World War Two independence and a hardline political Islam that has strengthened in recent years.
"This is a test case for Indonesian pluralism, if it can withstand the pressure of the religious groups, the populists," said Wimar Witoelar, a political analyst and an adviser to former President Abdurrahman Wahid. "Indonesia is at a crossroads, and I mean Indonesia, not just Jakarta."
A survey conducted on April 12-14 by polling firm Indikator showed Anies with 48.2 percent support versus 47.4 percent for Ahok, with 4.4 percent undecided.
Worries about backlash
The business community is worried about a possible violent backlash from the losing side in the election, which could affect the investment climate and endanger Jokowi's fit-and-start economic reforms.
Southeast Asia's biggest economy grew 5.2 percent in 2016 and the government expects a repeat of that this year. Indonesian stocks are up 12.6 percent on the year, making the Jakarta market one of Asia's best performers.
Kartika Wirjoatmodjo, chief executive officer of the largest state bank, Bank Mandiri, said in an interview that whoever won "we [should] make sure it doesn't affect any of the long-term policies, especially on the openness and... ease of doing business and attracting investment."
Ahok, who replaced Jokowi in 2014 as Jakarta governor after serving as his deputy, saw his popularity soar as he tackled decrepit infrastructure, chronic flooding and endemic corruption in the traffic-clogged city of over 10 million.
His support plunged after an edited video circulated last September suggesting Ahok had mocked a verse in the Koran used by his opponents to argue Muslims should not vote for a person holding different religious beliefs.
Amid two rallies last year that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters, Ahok was charged with blasphemy, forcing him to make regular appearances in court during the campaign.
The hardline Islamists behind the rallies – led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group known for attacks on religious minorities and extorting money from nightclubs – were cultivated by Ahok's rivals. Anies was accused of betraying his moderate Islamic roots when he met and sang with FPI leader Habib Rizieq, who was twice imprisoned for inciting violence in 2003 and 2008.
Ahok recovered to win the first round on Feb. 15 with 43 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for Anies and 17 percent for Agus Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who drew support from conservative Muslims.
The FPI was among groups circulating hoax news stories on social media during the campaign of a pending invasion of Chinese workers and Chinese plots to decimate Indonesia's crops with contaminated chili.
The FPI has vowed to stage further protests and a "revolution" if Ahok wins, according to flyers circulated by the group.
A senior government official said a victory for Ahok could reignite religious tensions and China-baiting at a time when the government is chasing Chinese investment for much-needed infrastructure.
"I worry that if a sizable portion of the electorate feels cheated there could be a very serious backlash," said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about the political climate in Indonesia.
However, political analyst Tobias Basuki also saw risks for the national government and its reform agenda if Anies won, given plans by his political patron Prabowo Subianto to challenge Jokowi in the 2019 presidential poll.
Anies was Jokowi's campaign manager in the 2014 presidential election, when he beat Subianto. But Jokowi sacked him as education minister last year. "Anies and Prabowo controlling Jakarta would impede Jokowi every step of the way," Tobias said.
[Additional reporting by Eveline Danubrata and John Chalmers.]