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Jakarta governor election to be test for country’s pluralism


Jakarta voters head to the polls on Wednesday to elect a governor for Indonesia’s teeming capital after a campaign that incited political and religious tensions in the world’s most-populous Muslim country.

Surveys have shown the race tightening to a statistical dead heat, with incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, closing in on rival Anies Baswedan, a former education minister.

Purnama is standing trial on blasphemy charges stemming from the divisive campaign that also featured mass rallies led and alleged plots to overthrow President Joko Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi.

The Jakarta election is viewed as a larger choice ahead of a 2019 presidential poll between the secular policies Indonesia has practiced since its post-World War II independence and a hardline political Islam that has strengthened in recent years.

“This is a test case for Indonesian pluralism, if it can withstand the pressure of the religious groups, the populists,” said Wimar Witoelar, a political analyst and an adviser to former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

“Indonesia is at a crossroads, and I mean Indonesia, not just Jakarta.”

The business community is worried about a possible violent backlash from the losing side in the election, which could affect the investment climate and endanger Widodo’s fit-and-start economic reforms.

Southeast Asia’s biggest economy grew 5.2 per cent in 2016 and the government expects a repeat of that this year. Indonesian stocks are up 12.6 per cent on the year, making the Jakarta market one of Asia’s best performers.

Purnama, who replaced Widodo in 2014 as Jakarta governor after serving as his deputy, saw his popularity soar as he tackled decrepit infrastructure, chronic flooding and endemic corruption in the traffic-clogged city of over 10 million. His support plunged after the blasphemy videos circulated of him, which was used by his opponents to argue Muslims should not vote for a person holding different religious beliefs.

Purnama recovered to win the first round on Feb. 15 with 43 per cent of the vote, compared to 40 per cent for Baswedan and 17 per cent for Agus Yudhoyono.