Jakarta Gubernatorial Runoff a Squeaker

Millions of Jakarta residents are set to cast their votes in a heated second-round gubernatorial election tomorrow, April 19, that is both a test of secular democracy in Indonesia and of President Joko Widodo’s political clout in delivering back to office one of his chief lieutenants, the incumbent, an ethnic Chinese-Christian, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja.

Arrayed against Ahok is Anies Baswedan, a former education minister supported by conservative Muslims. He is backed by the powerful political machine of Prabowo Subianto, the president’s chief rival in the 2014 general election, as well as several Islamic organizations that have capitalized on the discontent and said they will create equality for the city’s poor.

The race is considered too close to call, according to recent opinion polls, with all of them within the margin of error. 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. The Jakarta-based Charta Politika survey showed that 47.3 percent of nearly 800 respondents favored Ahok and deputy governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat while 44.8 percent supported Anies and running mate Sandiaga Uno, a businessman.

The race has been complicated by a blasphemy case filed against Ahok over comments he made last September on the Quran that were deemed insulting to Islam in what is regularly described as the world's most populous predominantly Muslim country. The Jakarta governor, in a public speech, said there are people who deceive Muslims into believing the Quran commands them not to vote for non-Muslims. That resulted in massive street protests by conservatives -- apparently with strong funding from Jokowi's political opponents -- in November and December. The rallies have continued but have been smaller in size as the runoff has neared. It is believed that the president has strongly counseled both political and religious leaders to refrain from using Islam to fan discontent.

Although he apologized for the remarks and at one point broke into tears publicly, Ahok was charged with blasphemy, which many regard as a political use of the courts, and faces a maximum five-year jail term if found guilty. He remains free and a verdict is expected after the election, after the police asked the court to postpone the reading of charges. There are concerns that Ahok could be reelected as Jakarta governor only to face jail.

Jokowi, as the president is known, has thrown his political resources into the race to aid Ahok, who was his deputy governor when he rose to the presidency in 2014 and subsequently took over the job.

Ahok won a three-way first-round vote on Feb. 15, securing 43 percent of the votes, while Anies came second with 39 per cent. The third candidate, the eldest son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, finished a distant third. However, after the first-round election, congregants in some areas in Jakarta installed banners calling for Muslims not to vote for an "infidel." The banners also warned that those who did so would not receive Islamic rites when they died.

“Honestly, I am confused of whom to vote for, unlike the presidential election in 2014 when I was confident of voting for Jokowi,” Indriaty Octarina, a housewife in South Jakarta, told Asia Sentinel. “What I want from a governor is someone who can deliver good results, anti-corruption, firm with all regulations so that we can have a better Jakarta,” she said.

“I think Ahok is doing a good job as a governor, but obviously he has a problem of controlling what’s coming out of his mouth; he is too arrogant” Octarina said, adding that although Anies is not her favorite either, when it comes to religion, she wants to “be a good Muslim and follow Islamic teaching,” a belief that the Quran commands her not to vote for Jews and Christians as leaders. “Most of my family members feel the same about this election,” she said.

Octarina’s story is shared by other Muslim voters in Jakarta, who despite agreeing that Ahok is doing a good job as governor, won’t vote for him in the coming election. Research by Pollmark Indonesia recently showed that as many as 21.6 percent of voters say that their vote will be based on their religion.

As many as 7.9 percent of respondents remained undecided according to face-to-face interviews conducted between April 7 and 12. Charta Politika claimed the survey had a 3.5-percent margin of error.

Ahok, the first Christian to lead Jakarta in 50 years, has been perceived as an effective administrator in a bureaucracy long plagued by corruption and incompetence. He has implemented a raft of infrastructure projects including parks and transport, with efficient services becoming commonplace after decades in which political hacks ruled the sprawling city. He has won praise for cleaning up rivers clogged with rubbish, thereby reducing annual flooding in the capital city of 12 million people. His administration has also built more children's playgrounds.

However, he has caused resentment with his decision to evict poor residents from riverbank shanty towns and relocate some of them to low-cost apartments, where they have to find rent money despite having been separated from their source of income. He has also drawn criticism for going ahead with a plan for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay to create 17 artificial islands, which has been criticized as benefiting the Chinese conglomerates and adding to the economic inequality in the country.

He has since vowed to upgrade existing houses instead of evicting the residents, and to modify the reclamation of the bay, saying that the project threatens the environment and fishermen's livelihoods.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta Police released a circular on Monday prohibiting mass mobilization that could result in physical or psychological intimidation of voters on April 19. Jakarta election commissioner Dahliah Umar said too much security might make citizens feel uneasy when they come to polling stations to cast their votes.

“The police should remain proportional [in deploying officers] and not make the security too conspicuous, so that people will feel comfortable when they vote,” Dahliah said.