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This is a question that lingers in the minds of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo campaigners: Will Jakartans, who are mostly Muslims, vote for Jokowi, even though his running mate is of Chinese descent and a Christian?
The answer is quite elusive. In many ways, the nomination of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama as Jokowi’s running mate in the race for Jakarta’s governor is a landmark in the capital city’s political history.
A few years ago, it was virtually unthinkable that someone of Chinese descent and a Christian could run in Jakarta elections.
During the 1998 riots, the Chinese were made scapegoats of all the ills that had befallen the country. Their houses were burned down and their stores looted. There were also reports that Chinese women were gang raped during the bloody riot that brought democracy to Indonesia. Some of them fled Jakarta and never returned.
And while the capital city has always been relatively inclusive for all people regardless of racial or religious backgrounds, the idea of having a Christian leader is still considered taboo by the Muslim majority.
Though they have coexisted for decades, it’s hard to overlook the mutual suspicion between the adherents of the two Abrahamic faiths in the capital: the Christians are worried that the Muslims will turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, whereas the Muslims are suspicious that the local Christians are clandestinely proselytizing poor Muslims and will later build “the biggest church in Asia”.
These suspicions are baseless, as we know that many Muslims are either against or do not even understand the notion of the “Islamic state”, and that most Christians are possibly disgusted by the notion that you can convert people by bribing them with money or staples.
Nevertheless, they persist.
Of course, Jakarta has changed a lot in the last 14 years. Jakarta today is not the same as Jakarta in the late 1990s, when people were still lining up for cooking oil. On the back of robust economic growth, Jakartans are becoming more prosperous and now enjoying higher levels of disposable income.
It is not uncommon to see Jakartans hanging out at one of the city’s ubiquitous cafes with their iPads and BlackBerry. Some of them subscribe to more liberal values, or are generally considered to be more open-minded. But this does not mean that most Jakartans have become less religious or less conservative. In the past few years, the city has also seen the emergence of Islamic congregations led by the so-called habib, who manage to draw hundreds or even thousands of followers.
In the holy month of Ramadhan, when Muslims appear to become more devoted than during other months, religion is creeping — perhaps not quietly — into the battleground of the Jakarta elections.
The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman, Ma’ruf Amien, has openly expressed his support for Fauzi Bowo, saying that the incumbent deserved his support as he had always been close to the kyai, or the Muslim clerics. Moreover, it is now reported that in their tarawih sermons, a number of Muslim preachers have been campaigning against Ahok simply because he is not a Muslim.
It is hard to say if the clerics could be charged with a smear campaign for expressing their religious convictions, but politically charged sermons are expected to become more widespread ahead of the runoff vote.
The incumbent has so far distanced himself from this so-called SARA (racial, religious, racial and intergroup) campaign, knowing that it could backfire on him in the runoff. In the 2007 elections, he defeated Adang Daradjatun, as he was considered more inclusive than his competitor, who was backed by the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
As political parties begin to lose their grip on voters, the outcome of the runoff will very likely be determined by how rational and mature Jakartans are in selecting their leaders. At a glance, the future may look grim for Jokowi and Ahok, but they still have plenty of reasons to remain buoyant.
It is moot whether religious preachers are actually capable of influencing their disciples to vote against certain candidates, given the fact that Islamic parties are now languishing, despite the clerics’ full endorsement. The results of the latest general elections showed that Indonesians, including Jakartans, are, to a certain extent, more secular in their political views.
The fact that Jokowi won the first election round might also have boosted his confidence that racial and religious sentiment did not, and will not, undercut the Surakarta mayor’s electability among Muslim voters.
An exit poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) showed that Jokowi had more support from Muslim voters than his rival, Fauzi, though the gap was narrow. Jokowi was supported by 39 percent of Muslim voters, while Fauzi was backed by 35 percent.
A recent survey conducted by Tempo magazine also found that 89 percent of 1,768 people interviewed believed that Jokowi would remain popular despite a slew of religious slurs and other negative campaigns aimed at his running mate.
The politics of faith is a reality everywhere, including in the United States. But that should not taint the quality of democracy we wish to have — a full-fledged democracy built on the principle of equality, in which a leader is elected not because of his race or religion, but predominantly because of his leadership qualities.
The Sept. 20 runoff vote will therefore be a moment of truth, not only for Fauzi and Jokowi, but also for our democracy.