April 18, 2017 6:44 pm JST

Christian governor, former minister in tight race in Jakarta election

Religious tension lingers ahead of final vote

WATARU SUZUKI and ERWIDA MAULIA, Nikkei staff writers

JAKARTA -- The runoff election for governor of Jakarta will take place on Wednesday, and it should mark the end of a tumultuous campaign that has led to a rise in religious tension in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Former Education Minister Anies Baswedan is leading slightly over incumbent Chinese Christian Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, but the margin is narrow enough that Purnama could still pull off a victory, according to opinion polls. The latest survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia showed 48.2% of respondents in favor of Baswedan, compared to 47.4% for Purnama.

"With a margin of error of 4.5% ... each ticket has a chance to defeat the other in the election runoff," Indikator said.

Independent pollsters and news organizations will begin projecting results through poll samples after voting ends at 1:00 p.m. The election commission will announce the official results in May. Turnout among the capital's roughly 7.2 million eligible voters is expected to be high after Wednesday was declared a public holiday. The Indonesia Stock Exchange will also be closed.

Purnama and Baswedan are facing off after leading the first round of the election in February, which ousted Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from the race. Purnama led by a few percentage points with 43% of the vote, less than the majority threshold required to seal a victory.

A key issue in the heated election is remarks made by Purnama last September, in which he criticized people who cited a verse from the Quran to discourage Muslims from voting for him. The remarks, which were posted online in a video, sparked a wave of backlash that led to two massive demonstrations against the governor late last year. While campaigning for governor, Purnama has been attending trials nearly every Tuesday after being charged with blasphemy.

The police have since stepped up efforts to crack down on security concerns. They made a string of arrests before a scheduled demonstration against Purnama on March 31, curbing its momentum.

On Monday, police and election officials issued a joint circular to ban individuals from "mobilizing a crowd which may cause physical and psychological intimidation" at polling stations. The announcement came after a Muslim group last week called on Muslims from outside Jakarta to "safeguard" the voting process, with an aim to place 100 people in each of the 13,000 poll stations across the capital. On the same day, two opposing groups nearly clashed in central Jakarta after supporters of one of the candidates were accused of distributing goods to residents to win votes.

National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian on Monday said as many as 65,000 security personnel -- including from the police and military -- will be dispatched to secure the capital during the election.

Meanwhile, in an unexpected twist, prosecutors who were scheduled to call for Purnama's sentencing on April 11 requested a postponement until after the election. Still, Purnama may be forced to resign as governor if found guilty, even if he wins the election.

The religious controversies have left limited time for residents to digest the candidates' policies to develop the sprawling capital, the heart of Indonesia's economy but also notorious for traffic jams and large income inequality. Baswedan's camp, for example, has pledged to assist low income households by cutting down payments for houses to zero, although analysts have pointed out that some of them might violate existing regulations. Purnama, who became governor in 2014 after his predecessor Widodo became president, aims to continue clamping down on bureaucracy.

Some observers are concerned that the losing side will contest the results, which may lead to political instability and erode investor confidence. Analysts have said the tax amnesty program, which ran for nine months until March, netted much lower-than-expected repatriation from overseas due to last year's demonstrations. The intense use of religious sentiment in the heated campaign also raise concerns over Indonesia's pluralism.

"The massive politicizing of religion at present is not only threatening our diversity and democracy, but also our national unity and identity," said Syamsuddin Haris, a political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

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