ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES – Thousands turned out in protest last month demanding the governor of Jakarta be locked up for allegedly insulting Islam.

The governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, is in the middle of a tight reelection campaign that will finish in April. Voting results in the first round showed him in a leading position compared to other candidates but lacking the 50% or more needed for an outright win. Ahok now heads into a runoff with the runner up.

Ahok’s trouble stems from an incident last October during a get-out-the-vote stop on a predominantly Muslim island in Pulau Seribu. He urged constituents to not be fooled by Islamic leaders who cite the Quran to discourage them from voting for a non-Muslim leaders. Some Muslims took offense, saying Ahok had insulted Islam and committed blasphemy, a crime in Indonesia punishable by up to five years in prison.

It’s a rapid turn of events for a previously popular politician who, despite being Chinese and Christian, was considered likely to be re-elected before the incident.

Beyond the blasphemy controversy, last month’s election was seen as irregular by many observers.

The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) claims that election organizers have committed violations against Ahok’s supporters. Though Ahok supporters are predominantly moderate Muslims and Chinese, many voters were kept from voting in their local polls, with excuses ranging from running out of ballots to would-be participants not being properly registered.

Despite many unable to vote for their candidates, the Jakarta National and Political Unity Agency (Bakesbangpol) expects the increase in the final voter lists (DPTs) for the second round of election.

Ahok’s sole opponent after the runoff is Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education who has been seen by observers as a moderate Muslim public figure. Anies walks a fine line, attempting to maintain a mainstream status while clearly benefiting from the blasphemy controversy plaguing Ahok. Critics say a speech Anies gave in January to FPI, an extremist Islamic group, could point to a troubling cozying up intended to help him win the governorship.

Though FPI has denied giving official endorsement to Anies Baswedan, they commented on Twitter that “It doesn’t matter, though, at least we don’t support a DEFENDANT”.

Jakarta’s gubernatorial election is seen as an unofficial stepping stone to the presidency. As one of the most bitterly contested cities, Jakarta has often become a testing ground for Indonesian values of moderate Islam and pluralism.

Jeremy Menchik, a political observer and Assistant Professor of International Relations in Boston University, commented on Voice of America that “he [Ahok] is in a ‘win-win’ position now. Though he might not win, I think he has opened a way for minority groups to enter into a political field and success in the future. Looking at his achievement now, we can’t perceive it as a failure even if he lose in the second round election”.

The final count for round one of Jakarta’s local election from Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI), an Indonesian survey and political consultancy institution, showed that Ahok sits in the leading position with 43% of the vote, followed by Anies B. with 39.9%. A third candidate, Agus Yudhoyono, was eliminated after getting just 16.9% of the vote.

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