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Religious tensions, fake news test Indonesia's regional elections, all eyes on Jakarta

  • Published at 11:32 am February 15th, 2017
  • Last updated at 11:34 am February 15th, 2017
Religious tensions, fake news test Indonesia's regional elections, all eyes on Jakarta

Millions of Indonesians are heading to the polls to elect the capital's next governor following an election campaign marred by religious intolerance and racial bigotry. More than 13,000 polling stations opened across Jakarta on Wednesday to accommodate the 7.1 million people eligible to vote, one of dozens of elections taking place across the Muslim-majority country.

The Jakarta election pits incumbent governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama against Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, and Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, has been dogged by a blasphemy case triggered by comments he made about the Quran that were deemed insulting to Islam and Muslims. In September, he told a crowd of his supporters that if they were afraid of going to hell if they elected a non-Muslim as their leader, they need not worry as they had been lied to "using Surah Al-Maidah verse 51."

Some Muslims interpret the Quranic verse in question as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders. Ahok has denied that he intended to insult the Quran, saying he was referring to those who misused religion for political purposes.

After two massive protests by conservative Muslims, he was charged and is now on trial for blasphemy, though he remains free to contest the poll. The 50-year-old led opinion polls in the run-up to the election, but according to analysts is not expected to win more than 50% of the votes, making a run-off unavoidable.

'Fake news'

The campaign period was also marked by rising anti-Chinese sentiment sparked by false news spreading online, including rumours that millions of Chinese were coming to Indonesia illegally.

Ahok has won praise from many Jakartans for cleaning up rivers clogged with rubbish, as part of his flood prevention programme, and building more parks. But critics say his moves to evict squatters and slum dwellers to make way for development have increased poverty and caused dispossession. Ahok's closest rival, Baswedan, has courted the votes of conservative Muslims despite his past reputation as a liberal Muslim reformer.

Support from conservatives rose after he visited the headquarters of the Islamic Defenders Front, whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, was a key member of the anti-Ahok protests. Official results will not be announced until the end of this month, but pollsters were expected to reveal so-called "quick counts" later on Wednesday.

Jakarta situation

The Jakarta vote is being widely seen as a proxy battle for the next presidential election, due in 2019.

The competition has been particularly bitter between Purnama's camp and that of Yudhoyono. Former president Yudhoyono said on Twitter on Tuesday that various figures were trying to sabotage his son's chances.

Police will deploy 75,000 personnel across the country with 16,000 on duty in Jakarta, where concern lingers over the possibility of hardline Muslim groups taking to the streets to agitate against Purnama.

Some Islamist groups have said they will send members to polling stations to "safeguard" the vote. "We will send trained volunteers to at least 13,000 polling stations to watch as the votes are counted," said Muhammad al Khaththath of the Islamic People's Forum, which was among the organisers of the anti-Purnama rallies. "We are sure that in this situation, a Muslim will win," he said.

Polling stations will close by 0600 GMT. Quick counts, expected shortly after, are tallies of votes by private polling firms at a sample of voting booths across the city. The General Elections Commission is expected to announce official results after about two weeks.

If no candidate achieves a majority in the first round in any provincial vote, including Jakarta, a runoff is expected in May between the two candidates securing the most votes.

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