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Politics

Jakarta race still neck and neck as voters head to polls

Vote for governor of Indonesia's capital has big national implications

Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama held a rally in the capital on Feb. 4.

JAKARTA -- Wednesday's gubernatorial election here in Indonesia's capital is drawing a lot of attention because it will not only determine the face of one of Southeast Asia's most influential cities but also offer a glimpse into the country's 2019 presidential election.

The three-way race pits incumbent Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a member of Indonesia's Christian and Chinese minorities, against Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and former Education and Culture Minister Anies Baswedan.

"Only a professional and clean politician can push ahead with projects for citizens," Purnama declared at a rally on Feb. 4 in downtown Jakarta, addressing a sea of supporters wearing the plaid shirts that have become a symbol of his campaign.

Purnama was the running mate in Joko Widodo's successful 2012 campaign for governor and was promoted from deputy governor when Widodo became president in 2014. Purnama has developed a reputation as a reformer and is highly regarded for his ability to get things done. He has the endorsement of Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which is chaired by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The governor was initially considered a lock to win re-election, with early polls showing some 80% of voters backing him. But he was accused in September of insulting the Quran, the holy book of Indonesia's Muslim majority, and now faces criminal blasphemy charges. His support plunged to the 10% range at one point after the allegations emerged but has since rebounded. Purnama's camp adopted a strategy of keeping the gaffe-prone candidate from addressing the public during the campaign's final days.

Agus, a former military man, has international cachet, with a Harvard education and English skills that he showed off in a speech to diplomats on Feb. 1. The younger Yudhoyono has waged what has been called a guerrilla campaign, hitting the pavement to meet voters face to face, largely in poorer neighborhoods. At the same time, his mentions of foreign policy hint at ambitions for a future in national politics.

Agus rode Purnama's stumble and his father's support to a lead in several polls in December. But the momentum waned as his lack of political experience became apparent. He was unable to effectively answer criticism of his campaign pledge to give money to low-income households during a debate in January.

Baswedan, meanwhile, put his experience as a political analyst and cabinet member to good use, gradually winning over voters with a strong performance in televised debates. He also enjoys the support of political heavyweight Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of ex-President Suharto, who stumped for Baswedan in the race's final stretch.

Victory for Purnama would indicate continued support for Widodo's policies in the capital, boosting the president's re-election prospects. But a win for Agus would give Widodo a powerful rival. Widodo has not met with the elder Yudhoyono for some time, fueling media talk of the gubernatorial race causing a presidential feud.

If no candidate receives a majority of the vote Wednesday, a runoff will be held in mid-April between the top two. The latest polling shows Purnama and Agus roughly neck and neck at just over 30% each, leaving Baswedan not far behind at just under 30%. With some opinion polls even showing Baswedan leading the pack, the only thing that appears certain for now is that a victor won't emerge until after the runoff election.

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