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The odds against 'Ahok' in Jakarta's election runoff

Rival Baswedan has 'upper hand' with religious, Yudhoyono factors

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Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama waves to the crowd at a music concert, ahead of February's gubernatorial election.   © Reuters

JAKARTA Despite his slight lead in early projections of the Jakarta gubernatorial election first round, the odds are stacked against incumbent Gov. Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama winning a likely runoff in April.

Purnama finished first with 43% of the votes in the first round on Feb. 15, according to most unofficial "quick count" projections by local pollsters, which are based on samples from polling stations. Former Education Minister Anies Baswedan followed closely with 40%, while Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, trailed on 17%.

Official tallies are scheduled to conclude toward the end of February. But with neither likely to secure an outright majority, a runoff election in April looks all but certain. Yudhoyono, who stands almost no chance of making the cut, conceded defeat on the evening of the election.

"I sincerely accept my defeat," he said before congratulating his two rivals.

Analysts were quick to point out that victory in the second round will come down to securing votes from Yudhoyono's supporters. The likelihood of them going to Purnama, however, is quite small.

Purnama is the first Christian governor of Jakarta since the 1960s, and the first ever of Chinese descent. This minority background does not sit well with conservative members of a predominantly Muslim city, neither does his outspoken manner -- something considered offensive in Javanese culture. Having previously served as deputy governor, only rising to the top job when his predecessor, Joko Widodo, won the presidency in 2014, this is the first time Purnama has had to go out and campaign for the governorship.

Purnama remains close to Widodo. Winning could help the latter secure a second term in 2019; defeat may do the opposite.

Nevertheless, his man-of-action image and fight against ineffective, corrupt bureaucracy won many supporters. But that was before a blunder in September when he cited the Quran while criticizing people using it to denounce a non-Muslim leadership. A doctored video of the speech went viral, triggering two huge rallies in Jakarta last year, where Muslims demanded he be arrested for blasphemy. His popularity sank, but strong performances in three live debates over the past month appear to have provided a second wind.

A recent survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia said 70% of respondents are satisfied with Purnama's work, but less than half are willing to vote for him.

"When it comes to religious sentiment [Baswedan] has the upper hand," said Indikator researcher Kuskridho Ambardi.

Baswedan, a former cabinet member in Widodo's government, came into the race as something of a dark horse, but closed the gap with Purnama after gaining support from conservative Muslim groups. The former rector of Jakarta's Paramadina University is officially backed by the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party and national opposition leader Prabowo Subianto. The campaigns against Purnama are set to benefit Baswedan.

Yudhoyono's camp is also more likely to side with Baswedan due to animosity going back more than a decade between Yudhoyono senior and Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which backs Purnama.

The enmity was renewed recently after Antasari Azhar, a former anti-graft agency chief who was convicted of murder in 2010, accused the older Yudhoyono of framing him after he refused to halt an investigation of a relative. Yudhoyono alleged this was part of a dirty-tricks campaign against his son, with Widodo granting clemency to Azhar only in January.

"I suspect that this was planned -- that Antasari launched his slanderous and cruel accusations against me one day before the Jakarta election," the former president said. "The goal was to ensure that [Agus] will be defeated. The clemency seems to be politically motivated."

Purnama also faces an uphill battle from a legal standpoint. He is currently on trial in the blasphemy case, and faces up to five years in jail if found guilty. If acquitted, more large-scale protests will likely await.

"There will be other efforts to gather the crowds. There have been actors behind the public mobilizations," said political analyst Muhammad Qodari.

Yet Purnama remains undeterred.

"This fight is not over yet, but we're grateful that we lead [in quick counts]," he said. "We're grateful that [people recognize] what we've done, and we're seen as able to create social justice for all residents of Jakarta."

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