JAKARTA: Jakarta went to the polls in a tight run-off Wednesday with the Christian governor fighting for his job despite standing trial for blasphemy, in a divisive election that has stoked religious tensions in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is facing a Muslim challenger, heavyweight ex-minister Anies Baswedan, in a neck-and neck race to lead the teeming capital of 10 million people.
Purnama, the city’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, won in the first round in February but not by a big enough margin to avoid a run-off.
The race was already significant as politicians see the job as a stepping stone to the presidency at 2019 polls, but the stakes were raised dramatically by a controversy sparked by claims that Purnama insulted the Quran.
The allegations drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests last year, and led to Purnama — known by his nickname Ahok — being put on trial for blasphemy in a case critics see as politically motivated.
Purnama, 50, has seen a once-unassailable poll lead shrink, and the vote has become a test of whether the traditional, tolerant brand of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is under threat from the rising influence of hardliners.
After casting his ballot at a polling station in north Jakarta, Purnama made clear the importance of the vote.
“Today’s election decides the future of Jakarta,” he told reporters. “The military and the police are guaranteeing security, so don’t be afraid to come out.”
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) and will close at 1:00 pm (0600 GMT), with over 7.2 million people registered to vote.
After an anti-Purnama protest last year turned violent, authorities are taking no chances and over 60,000 security forces had been deployed.
Hardline groups had pledged to station monitors at polling booths but police moved to ban the plan, warning it could cause “intimidation”.
Early vote tallies from private pollsters due to be released in the afternoon should give an accurate indication of how the candidates have performed although official results will not be announced until early May.
Despite Purnama’s first-round victory, former education minister Baswedan, 47, was initially seen as the favourite in the run-off because the votes from a third, Muslim candidate who was knocked out were expected to go to him.
But with tension over the governor’s alleged blasphemy subsiding in recent weeks, Purnama has regained momentum. Recent polls show the two candidates almost neck and neck, although most put Baswedan ahead by a wafer-thin margin.
Baswedan, an academic, has been accused of abandoning his moderate Islamic values during the campaign by cosying up to hardliners in a bid to win the support of Muslim voters angered by Purnama’s alleged blasphemy.
Purnama’s troubles began in September when he lightheartedly said in a speech that his rivals were tricking people into voting against him using a Quranic verse, which some interpret as meaning Muslims should only choose Muslim leaders.
His blasphemy trial began in December, and prosecutors are due to recommend a sentence for him in a hearing Thursday. The verdict is likely to be handed down within a few weeks.
If he does win the vote and is convicted of blasphemy, he would not automatically be barred from holding office and could avoid jail for a long time by filing successive appeals.
Many voters will still back Purnama due to his good record leading Jakarta since 2014, believing he is the best person to solve the city’s myriad problems, from monster traffic jams to pollution and corruption.
But some have been swayed by the blasphemy controversy.
“I will vote for (Baswedan) because, as a Muslim, I will choose according to my faith,” Elva Sativia, a 33-year-old housewife, told AFP.