Jakarta heads for run-off as election tests Indonesia’s religious tolerance

With the stakes now much higher, the government and law enforcements agencies are bracing for the threat of racial and religious violence in the next two months.

Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswedan displays an indelible ink mark on his fingers after voting at a polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia on February 15, 2017. Baswedan, a former education minister, garnered 39 per cent of Wednesday's vote, behind incumbent Basuki Purnama who won 43 per cent of the votes. Adi Weda/ EPA

JAKARTA // The incumbent Christian governor of Jakarta eased to a narrow win over his Muslim rivals on Wednesday in a city election that has become a major test of Indonesia’s much-vaunted reputation for religious tolerance.

With nearly all the ballots counted by Wednesday night, most quick count results showed the embattled Basuki Purnama winning 43 per cent of the vote, ahead of former education minister Anies Baswaden who garnered 39 per cent and third-placed Agus Haritmurti Yudhoyono on 17 per cent after fading badly in the final stretch.

The result sets the stage for the April 19 run-off that will go down to the wire.With the stakes now much higher, the government and law enforcements agencies are bracing for the threat of racial and religious violence in the next two months.

Mr Baswaden picked up significant gains from Mr Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during the final fortnight of the campaign, showing that conservative Muslim voters had already begun to consolidate around a single candidate.

Analysts believe Mr Purnama should have secured at least a 10 per cent buffer to have a better-than-even chance of prevailing in the April 19 showdown as he fends off charges that he committed blasphemy during a campaign speech last October.

Hardliners and political party rivals seized on his misstep in a concerted effort to derail his campaign. He could still be jailed for up to five years if convicted.

Then the deputy, Mr Purnama took over the top job in September 2014 when the previous governor Joko Widodo became the first candidate outside the established military and civilian elite to win Indonesia’s presidential election.

Now, he stands to make history himself as Jakarta’s first elected ethnic Chinese leader in a contest that pits Muslim conservatives and rival politicians against a pragmatic middle class supporting a tried and tested governor presiding over the capital’s biggest-ever infrastructure boom.

Mr Widodo and Mr Purnama won easily in the 2012 gubernatorial election. But Mr Widodo is Muslim and the circumstances today are a lot different, even without the blasphemy charge.

Educated Indonesians are worried about how Islam and populism have become an increasingly potent mix in a country of 223 million Muslims that has undergone a significant religious revival since the fall of long-serving president Suharto in 1998.

Since the death of former president Abdurrahman Wahid eight years ago, Indonesia has not had a recognised pluralist leader to shore up support for the 1945 Constitution and the Pancasila - the Indonesian state ideology - which lay the foundations of the secular state.

Mr Purnama has only himself to blame for some of his troubles. After recovering strongly from the blasphemy charge, he lost ground again recently with an attack on Ma’ruf Amin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council.

The governor was upset at evidence suggesting that ex-president Mr Yudhoyono and Mr Amin, a former influential presidential adviser and cleric with a long history of draconian edicts, had conspired to get the Ulema Council to endorse the blasphemy case against him.

The damage he did was reflected in the 300,000 people who flocked to Jakarta’s Istiqial mosque on February 11, just days before the election. There, clerics defied police directives and told adherents not to vote for a non-Muslim leader – using the very verse in the Quran Mr Purnama referred to in the blasphemy allegation.