Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared Wednesday 19 April 2017 a public holiday for citizens in Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta. This decision, made through a presidential decree, will make it easier for locals to cast their votes in the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election, a tight race between incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok) and former education minister Anies Baswedan.
A second round is required after none of the candidates won the majority of votes in the first round (held on 15 February 2017). In that first round Ahok controlled 43 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for Anies Baswedan and 17 percent for Agus Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, problematically for Ahok is that Agus Yudhoyono actually drew a lot of support from conservative Muslims. These conservative Muslims are now expected to support Anies Baswedan in the second round, with Yudhoyono being eliminated in the first round.
Various opinion surveys and polls show that there is a narrow margin between Ahok and Baswedan and therefore it somewhat resembles the battle for Indonesian presidency in mid-2014 between Widodo and narrowly defeated Prabowo Subianto. That election was one filled with tensions because Widodo managed to break the political power of the country's traditional political and military elite. It was a battle between "reform-mindedness" versus "business as usual" (in a highly corrupt nation), won by market favorite Widodo.
But Ahok's battle is even tougher. While Widodo is a Javanese Muslim, Ahok is a Christian of Chinese descent and therefore the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election brings a high degree of religious and ethnic tensions. It is no surprise Anies Baswedan has been eager to present himself as a pious Muslim and seeking good relations with the stricter (or even hardline) Islamic forces that exist within the world's largest archipelago.
It is also no surprise Ahok is currently standing trial on blasphemy charges after a manipulated video - showing him criticizing the content of a specific verse in the Al Quran - surfaced on social media in late 2016. Under major pressures originating from strict Muslim forces (who staged several huge demonstrations in Jakarta) prosecutors went ahead with the case. They are set to demand a prison sentence for Ahok on 20 April 2017, one day after the second round of Jakarta's 2017 gubernatorial election.
Meanwhile, the person who uploaded the manipulated video of Ahok (together with a manipulative text that aims to provoke a certain interpretation of the video) has been charged under Article 28 of the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions Law on inciting religious and ethnic hatred. He can face up to five years in prison.
Some analysts claim the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election is the prelude to the 2019 presidential election in Indonesia, where a battle between secular forces and hardline political Islam is expected. We do not agree with this view because over the past two decades parliamentary elections in Indonesia actually show the declining popular support for Islamic parties, while "secular" parties strengthened their position in the political domain of the country.
Indeed there is a hardline Muslim minority within Indonesia, one that is more visible than ever in media because they took their democratic right to demonstrate against Ahok on various occasions. However, considering only 200,000 people were on the streets of Central Jakarta on 4 November 2016 to protest in the biggest anti-Ahok rally, then they only form 2 percent of Jakarta's +10 million community. In fact, on that day many demonstrators traveled to Jakarta from surrounding regions to participate in the rally, thus that "2 percent figure" is highly overestimated as it does not take into account the population in those regions beyond Jakarta.
Still, the Jakarta election is an interesting test case for the state of pluralism in Indonesia. It is also interesting to learn how (and if) supporters of either candidate accept a defeat. An Ahok victory can easily lead to violence among the hardline Muslim supporters, something that would damage Jakarta's and Indonesia's investment climate (albeit temporarily).