Jakarta Governor Race Heats Up With Ruckus Over Koran Comments

  • Ahok seeking to become first elected Christian to post
  • Contest seen as precursor to 2019 presidential elections

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok.

Photographer: Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images

A three-way race to lead Indonesia’s largest city is turning into a potential test for religious tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, is seeking to become the first Christian elected governor of Jakarta, a post that has been a springboard to the presidency. Yet days before the campaign’s official start he was questioned by police for four hours over claims his recent comments about the Koran amounted to blasphemy.

“No doubt, the election will get uglier in that regard," said Marcus Mietzner, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. "But Jakartans have thus far withstood the temptation of appeals to ethnic and religious exclusivity."

Ahok, 50, succeeded Joko Widodo as Jakarta governor two years ago when his ally became president. Known for his blunt style, opinion polls taken before the controversy over Ahok’s Koran comments show the former Golkar party lawmaker leading his rivals, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and ex-Education Minister Anies Baswedan, who is backed by 2014 presidential runner-up Prabowo Subianto.

While the first round of voting for governor is not until February, the race will be closely watched. Jakarta, a city of 10 million people, matters not just because it is the most high-profile political post at a local level but because as the nation’s financial center it contributes nearly a fifth of Indonesia’s gross domestic product.

‘Very Sorry’

While Ahok enters the race as front-runner, criticism from Muslim leaders, who have highlighted his Christianity and minority ethnic Chinese background, could complicate the vote. If there is no clear winner in the first round on Feb. 15, it will mean a run-off election.

Speaking last month at a fisheries institute north of Jakarta, Ahok said his opponents had "deceived" voters by using Koranic verses to try to convince them that Muslims were not permitted to support a Christian leader. His comments prompted thousands of Muslims to take to the streets in protest.

Despite Ahok saying he was "very sorry" for the remarks after his police interview, thousands of protesters led by the Islamic Defenders Front are set to rally for a second time next week with plans to march on the State Palace after Friday prayers. About 10,000 protesters gathered two weeks ago, with some chanting “Reject Ahok.”

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"It must be recognized that in Jakarta the majority of the voters are Muslim, about 85 percent, although certainly not all of them come from Muslim groups," said Mardani Ali Sera, Baswedan’s campaign chief. At the same time, voters will also consider "the quality and integrity" of the candidates, he said.

Thousands of Indonesian Muslims march in protest gainst Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, outside his office in Jakarta on October 14, 2016.
Thousands of Muslim hardliners protested in Jakarta on October 14, demanding the Indonesian capital's Christian governor be executed for allegedly insulting Islam, as he faces an increasingly tight election race. / AFP / GOH CHAI HIN        (Photo credit should read GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Indonesian Muslims march in protest against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama outside his office in Jakarta on Oct. 14.
Photographer: Goh Chai Hin/AFP via Getty Images

Honest, Clean

A recent poll by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found 41 percent of voters believe the Jakarta economy has improved under Ahok, while 66 percent view him as "honest and clean,” a key factor in a country ranked 88th out of 167 nations in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Working in lockstep with Jokowi, as Widodo is also known, on efforts to overcome Jakarta’s choked infrastructure such as a $1.3 billion metro rail system for the capital, Ahok may benefit from the support of a popular president. Counting against Ahok is a policy of forced slum evictions that has angered thousands of poor urban residents.

"Voters recognize that he is coarse and impolite, but they do not care,” said Kevin O’Rourke, a political analyst and author of Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia. “They generally respect all three candidates, quite rightly, but they correctly see Baswedan as too soft and Agus Yudhoyono as aloof from the issues of the urban poor.”

Analysts see the Jakarta gubernatorial race as a precursor to the 2019 presidential campaign for all three candidates. "Agus’ nomination is also geared towards the 2019 election, but more than anything else, it shows SBY’s impatience," said Mietzner. "He is taking a big risk by throwing his inexperienced son prematurely into politics." Imelda Sari, a spokeswoman for Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, didn’t reply to questions seeking comment.

“All three would gladly run for president, if they could,” O’Rourke said. “I tend to expect Purnama to receive extensive consideration as a presidential nominee, but probably not until 2024,” he said. “Purnama could be Widodo’s running mate in 2019."

— With assistance by Chris Blake, and Rieka Rahadiana

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