Widodo calls for unity as divided Jakarta goes to the polls

anies-baswedanJAKARTA: Indonesia’s president called for unity as he cast his vote in Wednesday’s election for Jakarta’s governor, a contest between a Muslim and a Christian candidate that has stoked religious tensions in the capital of the world’s third-largest democracy.

Police said voting proceeded smoothly through the morning across the city of 10 million people, after what the Jakarta Post this week dubbed “the dirtiest, most polarizing and most divisive” election campaign the nation had ever seen.

“Political differences should not break our unity,” President Joko Widodo said in a statement after casting his ballot at a central Jakarta polling station. “We are all brothers and sisters. Whoever is elected, we must accept.”

Opinion polls in the run-up to the election pointed to a dead-heat between the incumbent governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama – the city’s first Christian and ethnic-Chinese leader – and a former education minister, Anies Baswedan, who like 85 percent of Jakarta’s residents, is Muslim.

Given Jakarta’s outsized importance as both the nation’s capital and commercial center, the election is viewed as a barometer for a 2019 presidential election.

Purnama is backed by President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. Baswedan, is backed by a conservative retired general, Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Widodo in a 2014 presidential vote and may challenge him again.

But the election is also viewed as a test for Indonesia’s young democracy and record of religious tolerance, with both sides raising concerns about intimidation and voter fraud.

The campaign featured mass rallied led by a hardline Islamist movement, which has strengthened in recent yerars in a country long dominated by a moderate form of Islam.

Light security

“Don’t let any cheating happen, because the future of Jakarta is determined by the election today,” Purnama, 50, told reporters after voting with his family in North Jakarta.

His rival, 47-yeaer-old Baswedan, said as he voted in the south of the city that the election was “a celebration of democracy”, which was being closely watched both at home and abroad and so it was important there should not be an atmosphere of tension.

Security appeared light at several polling stations, though police said 66,000 personnel were deployed across the city.

Police in neighboring provinces on Java island searched private cars and public buses heading for Jakarta on Tuesday to look for sharp objects and explosives.

Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono said the checks were to ensure there was “no movement of masses toward the capital”, and added there were no signs so far of crowds gathering.

Religious tensions have been an undercurrent in the campaign, with Purnama on trial for blasphemy over comments he made last year that many took to be insulting to Islam.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets late last year to call for his sacking and to urge voters not to elect a non-Muslim leader. One person died and more than 100 were injured after one protest turned violent.

Police fear that Islamic leaders could incite a fresh bout of unrest if Purnama wins the election.

Contesting the results

Purnama faces up to five years in jail if convicted of blasphemy. His trial will resume on Thursday, when prosecutors will submit their sentence request.

“We are worried things could be hotter if the results are quite close,” said Isabella Hariyono, a 30-year-old voter in North Jakarta. “We hope things don’t heat up. The police and military are ready but we never know.”

About 7 million people are eligible to vote until 1 p.m. (0600 GMT), when polling stations close. Private pollsters, approved by the national elections commission, are expected to announce an unofficial tabulation of a sample of votes, known as “quick counts”, within a few hours of polls closing. The elections commission is expected to announce official results by the first week of May.

The loser can contest the results in the Constitutional Court, which could prolong political uncertainty for weeks.

Citigroup said in an investor note that, despite the potential for renewed protests if Purnama won, it was maintaining a Jakarta stock index target of 6,150 by the end of 2017, representing an 8 percent upside.

“As long as there are no security issues, the election outcome should not significantly stall the reform program of the national government, in our view,” it said.