How a local election exposes Indonesian society’s faultlines

Urnama is backed by President Joko Widodo’s party and is running against Agus Yudhoyono

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Tens of millions of Indonesians head to the polls on Wednesday in local elections across the Muslim-majority country, with bitter feuding over the powerful post of Jakarta governor stoking political and religious tensions.

Incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese and Christian leader, has angered some Muslim voters for allegedly insulting the Koran. He has denied wrongdoing, but is on trial for blasphemy in a case that rights groups and his supporters view as politically motivated.


Purnama is backed by President Joko Widodo’s party and is running against Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and ex-education minister Anies Baswedan. The two Muslim candidates appear to have won over much of the conservative Islamic vote and some Purnama supporters.

“In terms of performance, I support Ahok,” said Ferdi Ramadhan, 20, referring to Purnama’s nickname. “However, there’s the consideration of religion. I’m a I think I will vote for Anies Baswedan,” he said, after participating in a skate-boarding contest park at a park in the capital. It was built under Purnama’s administration on the site of a former red-light district.

Purnama has been popular among the middle classes for cutting red tape in the traffic-clogged city and pushing through infrastructure projects, such as constructing defenses against sea water intrusion. But the forced evictions of slum dwellers from their riverbank homes to ease chronic flooding in the city have also angered many mainly Muslim residents.

Muslims make up around 85 percent of the city’s population, which also has sizeable Christian and other minorities. The divisions have played out among communities, families and friends - much of it on social media and exacerbated by “fake news” stories - echoing the rifts seen in Britain over Brexit and the United States over the election of President Donald Trump.

“I personally am sick of arguing about these candidates and would like to just move on. It puts a lot of strain on friendships,” said Sari Ekaputri, a 38-year old marketing executive who lives in Jakarta.

Close race

Jakarta police will deploy 16,000 officers ahead of voting day as concerns remain about hardline Muslim groups trying to hold similar rallies to the mass protests seen late last year calling for the jailing of Purnama. Police banned a rally that was being planned by Islamist groups on Feb. 11, citing security concerns.

Despite the blasphemy allegations, Purnama has rebounded in opinion polls to remain a frontrunner. Even if he is convicted, he is legally allowed to run the city as long as appeals are under way, according to analysts. Jakarta’s poll is one of scores of regional elections due to be held in other provinces, cities, and districts throughout Indonesia.

But nowhere are the stakes quite as high as in Jakarta. Winning Jakarta can be a stepping stone to the presidency and Wednesday’s vote is widely being seen as a proxy ahead of the 2019 presidential, explaining how intense the campaigning has been.

“This election can determine the trajectory of future Indonesian politics...whether we will see an ugly future, where religion and ethnicity is further politicized for gains,” said Tobias Basuki, a political analyst at a Jakarta-based think tank.

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