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Indonesia Analysis

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Religious tensions of Jakarta election mark new page in Indonesia politics

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Basuki Purnama, the ethnic Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta commonly known as Ahok, was voted out of office Wednesday with polls showing 55 to 60 percent of votes for his Muslim challenger, former education minister Anies Baswedan. REUTERS/Beawiharta

In Indonesia, early polling results show Basuki Purnama, the ethnic Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, has lost his bid for re-election to his Muslim challenger, former education minister Anies Baswedan, after a campaign of religious tensions that has shaken up the country’s pluralistic political culture.


Official results will not be known until early May, but independent polls show Baswedan came out of Wednesday’s election with a lead of 55 to 60 percent of votes over Purnama, who is commonly known as Ahok.

Once favoured to glide easily to re-election, Ahok has been dogged by accusations of hardline Islamist groups that he insulted the Koran, which he denies, but which also led to him going on trial for blasphemy and see his support drop.

“First is the fact that the entire election itself was framed by Anies’s supporters, saying Ahok was blaspheming against Islam and that we are not supposed to be led by Christians,” says Yohanes Sulaiman, lecturer in politics at Jenderal Achmad Yani University, south-east of Jakarta.

“And then the fact that he’s under trial for insulting the Koran, that’s really hurt him since October […] and the fact that he was even able to win the first round of the election was kind of a record.”

Despite the trial and the uproar around it, observers are still taken aback by the degree to which religion has been decisive in this election.

“The margin is quite wide, and I think Jakarta electors are beyond religion, but I guess not so much yet,” says Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

“He promised other programs as well, which was attractive whether they are realistic or not, but I’m sure religion was the biggest factor that brought Anies to victory over an incumbent whose track record has been proven very good.”

Chinese presence also criticised

Religion was not the only factor that gave an advantage to Baswedan’s campaign, which also benefited from some anti-foreign and namely anti-Chinese sentiment.

Ahok and his ally, current President Joko Widodo, have opened up Jakarta and the country to Chinese investment, which hit a record amount equivalent to nearly 2.5 billion euros last year.

But the policy of openness has also brought some backlash that was turned into political fodder.

“Anies is not a hypernationalist or a true conspiracy theorist, so things will not turn overnight into a closed system,” Basuki says. “But groups who have put forward anti-Chinese sentiment will have a bigger play in the next few years, especially in national government.

“Basically Anies’s victory means the opposition controls the capital, and [Widodo’s] moves in building infrastructure and cooperation with China would be somewhat impeded.”

Religion in politics nothing new, but never so heated

Despite its tradition of pluralism – whereby ethnic Chinese figures like Ahok can play leadership roles in public life – the 95-percent Muslim nation has seen religion and anti-Chinese sentiment become political issues in the past.

“This is the first time it’s happened on this level and seen so much national and international media attention,” says Chris Chaplin, who researches conservative Islamic groups’ influence on Indonesian politics at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asia in Jakarta. “But the use of Islamic symbols and anti-Chinese rhetoric has occurred before, notably in the 2010 mayoral elections in Medan, for example.

“So the methods here are perhaps tried and tested in a certain way, although it’s the level of it, especially with Ahok being tried for blasphemy, seems to have taken it somewhere else, where it hasn’t been before.”

Even if religion and foreign presence played a significant role in Baswedan’s victory, though, Chaplin believes the result shows Jakarta’s seven million voters are divided along sectarian lines.

“Jakarta’s Muslim population is about 87 percent, by certain counts, and although it does look like Ahok has lost, the fact that he is averaging about 40 to 44 percent of the vote means that there is a significant part of the Muslim population that does not see religion as the most important issue,” Chaplin says.