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Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, right, and his deputy and also running mate, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, pose for photographers as they attend a campaign rally in Jakarta on Feb. 11, 2017 Dita Alangkara—AP

Pluralism Emerges as the Winner of First-Round Voting in One of Indonesia's Most Polarizing Elections

Feb 16, 2017

Jakarta’s Christian and ethnically Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known by his Hakka nickname Ahok, won the first round of the Indonesian capital's gubernatorial election on Wednesday, in a closely watched race widely seen as a bellwether of Indonesian secularism.

Based on pollsters' quick count in the evening, Ahok reaped 43% of the vote, despite an ongoing blasphemy case and massive protest rallies by hard-line Islamists, who denounced him in both religious and racial terms.

Of his rivals, former Education Minister Anies Baswedan trailed slightly behind with around 40% and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the eldest son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, came in distant third with just 17%. It now looks likely that Ahok and Anies will face off in a second-round election on April 19.

Some voters breathed a sigh of relief. “As a triple minority here — Chinese, nonreligious and female — I am happy,” says Anastasia Wiraatmadja, a small-business owner who flew in from Bali, in the middle of her vacation, just so she could vote for Ahok.

Muhammad Abie Zaidannas, who deferred his graduation ceremony to make sure he could cast his vote Wednesday, says: “I think this means people are smart, they can see many aspects apart from [racial and religious] identity.”

Jakarta's gubernatorial vote has been one of Indonesia’s most polarizing elections, and is about much more than about choosing the city’s de facto mayor. It has represented a choice between pluralism and increasingly fundamentalist Islam taking root in the world's most populous Muslim nation. Ahok's rivals, Agus and Anies, both courted the support of hard-line Muslim groups like the Defenders Islamic Front (FPI), which believes that non-Muslims should not hold high office in Indonesia.

Suratno, chairman of the Lead Institute think tank at Paramadina University in Jakarta, calls the strategy “Islamic populism,” comparing it to the sentiment whipped up by President Donald Trump in the U.S. “Trump uses Islamophobia, and here they use kafirphobia,” or aversion toward non-Muslim believers, Suratno tells TIME. “However, many Muslims also know very well that kafirphobia is just a political issue, and so far it’s been proved it doesn’t work.”

It certainly did nothing for Agus, who was unable to overcome his lackluster debate performance, unimpressive platform and his father’s bewildering statements on Twitter and in press conferences. It didn't help, either, that less than 24 hours before voting began his father was accused of falsifying murder charges against a former graft-buster.

Anies, meanwhile, stunned many moderate Muslims by paying a visit to the FPI headquarters, attending an anti-Ahok rally and calling for Muslims to only vote for a Muslim. Until the election, the former rector of Paramadina University enjoyed a reputation as a relatively liberal academic. “I had hoped that Anies would influence Islamists ... to be more ‘moderate,” says Suratno. “He is a disappointment.”

The rivalry between Ahok and Anies that will be carried forward to the next round of voting mirrors the bitterly fought contest in the presidential election in 2014. Ahok's candidacy is backed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s centrist political party, the PDIP. Anies' is endorsed by both the right-wing Gerindra Party, which is helmed by Jokowi’s presidential rival Prabowo Subianto, and the ultra-conservative Islamist party PKS.

In electing Jokowi in 2014, Indonesian voters rejected both a racially motivated smear campaign — Jokowi's opponents falsely claimed that the Javanese politician was of Chinese descent and not Muslim — as well as the nativist rhetoric of Prabowo. Instead, they opted for a capable, reformist bureaucrat who advocated pluralism.

That has now happened in Jakarta too. Even at the polling station at Tanah Abang district, where the FPI’s headquarters are located, Ahok received the most votes — more, in fact, than Anies and Agus combined. He also won at Kepulauan Seribu, the district where, in a campaign speech, he criticized the use by hard-liners of a Quranic verse to support their contention that non-Muslims should not hold power.

Ahok's ongoing blasphemy trial stems from the remarks he made at Kepulauan Seribu, and according to Suratno there will be “pressure from populist Muslims to see him convicted guilty in court and jailed.” Jokowi has promised not to interfere in the case.

However, in recent months the noose has tightened around Ahok's political opponents. Hours before a massive anti-Ahok protest took place in early December, eight antigovernment figures were arrested for alleged treason. Hard-line Muslim leaders are also facing a multitude of investigations for such cases as insulting Indonesia's pluralist state ideology, pornography, and money laundering.

The political tension is unlikely to abate in the coming two months. As Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat celebrated their victory on Wednesday, the front-runner said, “This fight is not over.” Those who are fighting for the soul of Indonesia’s democracy are likely to agree.

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