Updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on 2017-02-11
Millions of people are expected to vote for the governor of Jakarta next week in a race seen as a springboard for the presidency of Muslim-majority Indonesia but that has been overshadowed by blasphemy charges against the ethnic Chinese-Christian incumbent.
As many as 7.1 million residents are eligible to vote in Wednesday’s Jakarta gubernatorial polls, which will take place alongside 100 other elections for governors, mayors and regents across the sprawling Southeast Asian nation.
The contest for governor of Indonesia’s capital has grabbed national headlines and is being closely watched by some as a test of the country's long-standing philosophy of tolerance and religious diversity. The Feb. 15 election pits two candidates who are vying to push Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama out of office after more than two years on the job.
He and Deputy Jakarta Gov. Djarot Saiful Hidayat are going up against Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono – the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – and running mate Sylviana Murni, the former mayor of Central Jakarta and first woman to run for deputy governor of the city.
They are also running against gubernatorial hopeful Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a former minister of education, and running mate Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno.
The winner of Wednesday’s polls must receive more than 50 percent of ballots cast to clinch the election outright. If not, a run-off election will be held next month between the top two finishers.
The polls will determine who will be chief administrator of Indonesia’s capital region for the next five years and offer a window into the 2019 presidential elections, observers said.
“Whoever wins the election will manage a 70 trillion rupiah [U.S. $5.2 billion] regional budget annually and administer a city where 70 percent to 80 percent of all money in Indonesia circulates in. Any political party would want to gain control of Jakarta,” Emrus Sihombing, a political analyst at Pelita Harapan University in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
Emrus said the governor’s post could be a stepping-stone to the next presidential election. Parties are vying to control the capital by winning the gubernatorial election because it could provide them with a better chance to rule the country, he said.
Tensions around Ahok
If Ahok wins by the ballot box, voters would place him a step closer to the presidency. A member of the small ethnic Chinese minority has never been elected president in Indonesia.
Ahok became governor in 2014, when he succeeded Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the former governor who was elected president that year.
Ahok, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is running for election although he is standing trial for a blasphemy case stemming from allegedly anti-Islam comments made in September. He has proclaimed his innocence but also apologized to Muslims, saying he did not intend to offend them by quoting a passage from the Quran in a way that was interpreted as blasphemous.
Muslim groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have staged three rallies in Jakarta in recent months, in which they have called for Ahok to be prosecuted over the allegations that he insulted their religion. One of the rallies ended in violence on Nov. 4, when riots broke out.
Official campaigning among the candidates is to end Saturday, but the same anti-Ahok groups plan to hold a mass prayer service that day at the Istiqlal Mosque, the city’s largest mosque.
About 28,000 police officers and military personnel will be deployed to keep the peace in Central Jakarta on Saturday, according to Jakarta Police Chief M. Iriawan.
The FPI and other groups had planned to march in downtown Jakarta. But after meeting with Security Minister Wiranto on Thursday, the FPI and its firebrand cleric, Rizieq Shihab, said the groups had changed their plans.
“The clerics and religious figures who planned to participate in the Feb. 11 rally have wisely pondered to change the location from the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout to the Istiqlal Mosque, and have a mass prayer there,” Rizieq told a press conference after the meeting with Wiranto.
The minister said the government would not ban any mass rallies, despite security concerns.
“From my part as a chief security minister, they can go ahead with their activities, as long as they don’t do anything that breaks the law,” Wiranto said.
What the polls say
Agus, the ex-president’s son and a candidate from the Democratic Party, was leading in polls taken earlier in the campaign season, but the former army major has slipped into third place going into the final days of campaigning.
According to the latest survey by pollster Indikator that came out Friday, 39 percent of voters surveyed said they would pick the Ahok-Djarot ticket, compared with 35 percent who would elect Anies-Sandiaga, and 19 percent who would go for Agus-Sylviana.
However, Jakartans were skeptical about the accuracy of surveys by pollsters, according to Emrus.
“Assuming that all pollsters are good and credible, the public still has to know who financed the poll and look at whether the methodology is accountable academically,” Emrus said.
Dyah Adiwangsa, a supporter of Agus, said she didn’t believe in pre-election surveys.
“They can’t be used as reference – many of them are not fair,” she told BenarNews at Bidakara Hall, where the candidates were taking the stage on Friday night for their third and final official debate.
She said she would vote for Agus because he is young and has the potential to be a leader with a clean track record, and his running mate is a woman.
“Sylvi represents our gender and we should be proud of her,” Dyah said.
Gayatri, a resident of Pela Mampang, South Jakarta, told BenarNews she would vote for Anies, a candidate from the Gerindra party, because he and his former businessman running mate were offering a program to empower small-medium enterprises.
Jou Hasyim, a resident of Pondok Kopi, East Jakarta, said he would vote for Ahok because of his reputation for cleaning up seedier parts of town.
“He was able to evict [the people in] Kalijodo and cleared the area, turning it into a public park,” Jou told Benar, referring to an area in North Jakarta that used to be the city’s biggest red-light district.
Arie Firdhaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.