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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Divisive Election Winds Up

Apr. 19, 2017

The world's largest Muslim majority country, Indonesia, is facing a test of whether it can maintain its proud tradition of religious tolerance.

The election for Jakarta's governor took place.

It was a runoff between the minority Christian incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, and a Muslim rival, Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a former education and culture minister. None of the candidates secured an absolute majority in the first round of voting in February.

The incumbent governor, better known by his nickname Ahok, is popular with Jakarta's middle class for his tough-talking style and his strict anti-corruption stance.

But Muslim hardliners have repeatedly staged large protests against him, claiming that a non-Muslim should not be chosen as a leader.

In another move fueling religious tensions, Ahok is currently on trial on charges of blasphemy, in connection with a campaign speech he made about Islam last year.

Security forces were on full alert on voting day, deploying more than 60,000 personnel. Voters formed long lines at the 13,000 polling stations.

"Religion is important for me, because I am a Muslim. But this is not about religion."

"I am a Muslim, so I want a Muslim leader. My faith should determine my choice," say the voters.

Muslims account for about 90% of Indonesia's population. Despite this, Islam is not the state religion, and followers of other faiths enjoy equal rights.

But as conflicts over faith have intensified, the result of this election could determine the country's future.

At the end of last month, more than 20,000 demonstrators, mostly Muslims, gathered in the center of Jakarta. They protested the Christian incumbent, Ahok, saying he is unacceptable.

"Jail Ahok!"

"The Koran says Muslims shouldn't have non-Muslims as leaders. This is a fight for our God," they said.

Ahok has demonstrated skill in building infrastructure and other areas. Shortly after the election campaign started, observers said he was the clear favorite.

But in a campaign speech in September, he used a verse from the Koran.

"I don't mind if you are fooled into believing you cannot vote for me because you'd go to hell if you did so," he said.

He now faces charges of blasphemy. In court, Ahok has maintained his innocence. He says he had no intention of insulting Islam.

His rival Anies often visits mosques to stress his credentials as a devout Muslim.

"We'll go to hell if we pick a non-Muslim as governor. Everyone, you know what this means," says one of his supporters.

The campaign has fueled religious friction. Banners openly posted at mosques across Jakarta say people who vote for non-Muslims are hypocrites. They also say that anyone who insults religion will be denied funeral prayers at this mosque.

Meanwhile, Ahok supporters have produced banners saying Anies will force through fundamentalist Islamic law if he wins.

In the past month, the local election monitoring committee has removed more than 630 banners and other materials deemed inappropriate.

"We have to take down malicious banners because they trigger fights. They show our society is becoming more vulnerable, and tensions are rising," says Mimah Susanti, Head of the Jakarta Supervisory Election Board.

Some people are concerned over the widening social divide. They include Yudi Soetarno, a Muslim supporter of Ahok.

Yudi says that since local residents learned which candidate he supports, he can no longer talk with them the way he used to.

"Leaders should be chosen based on their ability, not on their religion. We should safeguard diversity in our society," he says.

Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined by Jakarta Bureau Chief Yusuke Ota.

Shibuya: Opinion polls show that the 2 candidates are running neck and neck. What are research companies reporting?

Ota: According to their latest reports, Anies is leading Ahok by approximately 10 percentage points.

The Muslim candidate has the wind at his back as the election battle has fanned anti-Christian sentiments.

Last year, for instance, Islamic authorities banned Muslims from wearing Santa Claus costumes. The edict was seen as a sign of declining religious tolerance in Indonesia.

More recently, mosques have denied funeral services to Muslim families that support Ahok.

I tried to interview some of them, but they refused to talk because they were worried about what their neighbors would think. I have the strong impression that the religious divide is very deep, and society is becoming inflexible.

Beppu: Why is there so much hostility against Ahok?

Ota: He's Christian, and he quoted a verse from the Koran in a political speech that many took to be insulting to Muslims. But behind Muslims' objection to Ahok is their discontent with society. Indonesia's economy has grown, but it's only a handful of wealthy people who are benefiting.

Economic disparities are growing, and discontent is mounting, especially among the poor. A World Bank study shows that the Gini coefficient of income and wealth distribution among Indonesian citizens has been getting worse since 2000, and inequality is growing faster than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

This has resulted in a lot of minority Christians with a Chinese background -- including Ahok -- making a lot of money and gaining social status as a result.

Members of the Muslim majority are venting their dissatisfaction and fear about being left behind in society. They blame Christians for their poverty.

A defeat for Ahok based on his religion will be a major setback for democracy in Indonesia. And that might cause problems in a country that has more than 300 ethnic groups, and has given equal rights to Islam and other religions.

The official result is scheduled to be announced in early May.