Jakarta election tests Indonesia's limits of tolerance

19 April 2017

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On 19 April, the residents of Jakarta – Indonesia’s sprawling capital – will go to the polls in an election that presents an unusually stark choice between religious solidarity and governmental performance.

It pits incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, against former education and culture minister Anies Baswedan. The election campaign highlights Indonesia’s growing religious and ethnic polarisation.

It is not unusual for members of ethnic and religious minorities to win local elections in Indonesia – one of the world’s most diverse countries. But Ahok’s campaign is testing the limits of Indonesian tolerance. Ahok is a member of the ethnic Chinese community, a group that has been subject to a long history of formal and informal discrimination. Ahok is also a Christian in a city that is 85 per cent Muslim, and here he is most vulnerable.

Islamist activists and grassroots preachers campaigned against Ahok by appealing to a Koranic verse that they say prohibits rule by non-believers over the faithful. In response Ahok told one audience last September that they were being “fooled” with the verse. His comments were recorded and quickly went viral online.

Ahok’s opponents accused him of insulting the Koran, and massive street protests followed. Islamist organisations such as the Islamic Defenders Front showed that they have phenomenal mobilising power.

The protests and associated outcry placed enormous pressure on the national government, and Ahok was charged with blasphemy – his trial is continuing. The results were predictable: Ahok’s approval rating plunged. Although he eked out a first-round victory in February, he has consistently lagged in the polls leading to next week’s second round. This is despite the fact that Ahok – who took over as Jakarta Governor when Joko Widodo, his then superior, was elected as Indonesia’s president in 2014 – was previously favoured to win.

Ahok is widely admired in Jakarta for his policy reforms and initiatives, especially improvements in healthcare, education, transportation, infrastructure and welfare programs. He is also admired for his tongue-lashings of bureaucrats and legislators he accuses of corruption or incompetence.

Muslim voters

Yet numerous surveys have shown that religious solidarity is trumping government performance in this election. A poll conducted last month found that 66 per cent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with Ahok’s performance as Governor. Yet only 41 per cent said they would vote for him, with 49 per cent favouring his opponent.

To read the entire article by Edward Aspinall, visit AFR.

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