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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Jakarta Election: A Test of Tolerance

Feb. 15, 2017

Millions of people in Jakarta are heading to the polls today to choose a new governor amid simmering religious tensions. The election is seen by many observers as a test of whether the country can maintain its tradition of tolerance among its diverse communities.

The country is the world's most populous Muslim-majority democracy but under the principle of "unity in diversity," other religions have long co-existed peacefully.

But the election campaign is casting doubt on its reputation for tolerance. The incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is seeking a second term. Basuki, known by his nickname Ahok, is Christian and Jakarta's first ethnic Chinese governor.

"Within 5 years, we're going to move Jakarta ahead to rival other big cities in the world," Basuki said at a campaign rally.

In an extraordinary turn of events, the governor is standing trial on charges of blasphemy. Muslim hardliners have accused him of insulting the Koran, and say he should be prosecuted.

"We're going to start a revolution if Ahok is not sent to jail," says one anti- Basuki protester.

Religious intolerance is rising and hardliners are gaining momentum, providing an opening for Islamic State militants and other extremists to spread radicalism.


The Fight to Run Jakarta

Jakarta is famous for its heavy traffic, but it's quieter than usual on this day of political choice. Elections took place to choose leaders of various provinces and municipalities, but much of the attention is on the Jakarta governor election. The voting ended about 5 hours ago and local media are projecting, based on exit polls, that the incumbent Ahok is the frontrunner, although he only has a very small margin against the second candidate.

People came out to polling stations to cast their vote from early morning. About 7 million people were able to vote in Jakarta.

"I am a Muslim, but not very conservative. The most important factor for me is a candidate's track record," said one voter.

Incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname, "Ahok," has faced an uphill battle during his campaign. The Christian governor is being tried on blasphemy charges.

During the election campaign, a Muslim hardline organization brought a complaint against him for insulting Islam. Ahok had criticized opponents who used a verse from the Koran to attack him, and he says he had no intention of insulting the religion.

Ahok cast his vote surrounded by supporters.

"Your choice will decide Jakarta's future, so I hope everyone will cast their votes at the polling stations," he said.

Two Muslim opponents also cast their vote.

"Thanks to God I already voted. Now we leave the results to God. We have been struggling along with residents of Jakarta," said governorship candidate Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono.

"We are very confident and optimistic, thanks to everyone who prayed for us," said Anies Rasyid Baswedan, another candidate.

If no one secures more than half of the votes, then a run-off is expected between the top 2 contenders and it would take place in April.


Spread of Religious Intolerance
Sho Beppu

The election for governor is said to be the first in which religion and race were the highlight. But, how can that be in a country known for achieving “Unity in diversity”? I went around Jakarta to find clues.

“God is great!” shout a group of men who gathered to express their anger at Jakarta's current governor, Ahok.

The scene has been playing out once a week since last December, when the court case began. Security forces have set up this barbwire outside the building where the case is being heard to separate around the pro- and anti-Ahok rallies being held there. It seems that the barbwire has become another sign of the growing division country is facing.

"I come here to defend my religion which has been insulted by Ahok," says one protester.

"He always says bad thing about Muslims, and tends to bring them harm," says another.

In the governor's race, Ahok is facing 2 candidates and both are Muslims. Muslim hardliners are demanding that the capital be governed by a Muslim. The election was supposed to be an opportunity to choose the best person to run the city but it has stoked fears that something new is spreading in the country: religious intolerance.

Tolerance is one of the key principles of Indonesia. After liberating itself from more than 3 centuries of Dutch colonial rule and 3 years of occupation by the Japanese military, the country's new leaders faced the immense challenge of uniting a newly independent multiethnic, multilingual and multi-religious nation.

The founding fathers are known for their perfect sense of balance: Even though the country has the world's largest Muslim population, they chose not to make Islam the state religion.

Muslim worshippers at one mosque expressed concerns that the hardliners are challenging the country's tradition of tolerance and pluralism.

"Islam in the Indonesia is actually the best example, but now there are many, some people who would like to ruin this," says one woman there.

"We hope that this not going to happen in the future and the government can solve this problem for not getting more worse," says a male worshipper.

Tobias Basuki, a researcher CSIS Indonesia, points out that various political forces are exploiting racial and ethnic differences to promote their agendas.

"This is not a religious issue, it has been a convergence of various interests," he says. "This election will be future projector of Indonesian Islam and democracy in which until now proven to be working very well, and can prove even work better, so this will be a true test of template of so called template or example of how Islam and democracy can work very well together."


Religious Tensions Divide Jakarta
Yusuke Ota

Here is a look at the candidates in the election, and how they campaigned.

Jakarta Governor Ahok is seeking a second term. The Chinese Christian minority candidate has enjoyed broad public support for leading successful infrastructure development projects.

"I pledge to improve our living environment and healthcare. I will make Jakarta one of the best cities in the world," he has said.

With the support of the ruling Democratic Party-Struggle, Ahok was thought to be a shoo-in. But, since being charged with blasphemy, he has had to make weekly court appearances.

Ahok is pleading not-guilty, saying he had no intention of insulting Islam. But the allegation has cast a shadow over his election campaign and caused a backlash among voters.

Islamic groups protesting against Ahok organized a rally on Saturday, the last day of the election campaign. More than 70,000 protesters called on voters to choose Islamic candidates to topple Ahok.

"I'm taking part to show that Islam will not give in to anyone. I will continue to protest until Ahok is in jail," says one demonstrator.

Former Education and Culture Minister Anies is a Muslim. During his campaign, he often visited mosques and demonstrated his faith to appeal to Muslim voters.

"Religious activities must have government support. There should be no separation. Let's send a message that Jakarta will be born again on February 15," Anies said at a podium during one event.

Indonesian law prohibits campaigning at religious facilities but Anies insisted he was only praying and that's not a political activity.

Muhammad Subur supports Anies. He feels that the booming economy has led to the increasing availability of alcohol. He wants to see a leader who understands the importance of Islamic discipline, and he's encouraging his neighbors to support Anies.

"It's important to realize that countries are normally governed by the majority. Allowing a minority to take power is asking for trouble," Subur says.

Mounting religious tensions have fed feelings of mistrust. Nina Havsari is a Muslim but she supports Ahok and his drive to improve living conditions.

"There used to be garbage everywhere. We couldn't even see the riverbanks," Havsari says.

She respects Ahok's work to clean up the river, and says some people avoid her since she's come out as an Ahok supporter.

"It's important to vote for a candidate based on his ability, and what he's achieved rather than on his religion. I want Muslims and non-Muslims to unite and work hand in hand for the benefit of all Jakarta," Havsa says.

The rise of Islamic hardliners has placed Indonesia's status as a secular nation at something of a crossroads. That's one reason why the current election could point the way ahead.


NHK World's Jakarta Bureau Chief Yusuke Ota joins anchor Sho Beppu in Jakarta.

Beppu: The election was supposed to be an opportunity to discuss issues such as infrastructure and social welfare. But I got an impression that the focus was on the candidates’ identity?

Yusuke: That’s right. The candidates and their supporters mainly talked about their religious backgrounds, and I think that we didn’t hear serious discussions about their policies. In a poll conducted by a private research organization in April 2016, only 40 percent of voters said that the candidate’s religion was an important factor. However, by last month, that number had grown to 71 percent. This trend was accelerated by some candidates’ election campaign strategies.

Beppu: How could this situation impact the country’s political climate?

Yusuke: I think the impact will not be limited to Jakarta but could spread to the whole nation. Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country consisting of more than 13,000 islands and about 300 ethnic groups. In order to achieve unity across such a diverse population, the government has been making great efforts to promote equal rights for the followers of Islam and other religious groups. Schools here teach kids rigorously about the importance of respecting other ethnic and religious groups.

If the situation becomes more unstable, there is even a risk that foreign investors will become skeptical about Indonesia’s stability, and the country may look less appealing as a place to invest.

Beppu: In fact, we are seeing religious tensions growing in other parts of Asia. What do you think is behind this?

Yusuke: Well, in Myanmar, conflict is escalating between Buddhists and the Rohingya people, who are Muslim minorities. In southern Thailand, predominantly Muslim regions have been demanding independence. And in India, Hindu supremacists are getting vocal. It is not easy to generalize these situations but, I think we're seeing a trend in which people are taking out their frustration about disparity and daily hardships against different religion groups. Hardliners claiming that they can fix social issues such as inequality have been gaining support especially among those who feel they've been left behind.

Beppu: We know that Indonesia is also facing challenges from the infiltration of extremist groups such as the Islamic State militant group. How's the country going to deal with these threats?

Yusuke: I am afraid that the extremists may see the current situation as a chance. You might remember that Islamic State group sympathizers carried out a terrorist attack in January 2016, in the center of Jakarta. That is just a few blocks away from here. In addition, there have been many reports of attempted attacks.

Indonesia’s economy has been growing under a stable political system. Its democracy has been praised as a model by other Muslim majority countries. I would say that Indonesia's democracy must succeed, and that is important not only for Indonesia itself but also for the region and beyond.