On April 19, the residents of Jakarta — Indonesia’s sprawling capital — will go to the polls in an election that presents an unusually stark choice between religious solidarity and governmental performance. It pits incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, against former education and culture minister Anies Baswedan. So far, the election campaign has highlighted Indonesia’s growing religious and ethnic polarization.

It is not unusual for members of ethnic and religious minorities to win local elections in Indonesia — one of the world’s most diverse countries. But Ahok’s campaign is testing the limits of Indonesian tolerance. Ahok is a member of the ethnic Chinese community, a group that has been subject to a long history of formal and informal discrimination. Ahok is also a Christian in a city that is 85 percent Muslim, and here he is most vulnerable.

Islamist activists and grassroots preachers campaigned against Ahok by appealing to a Quranic verse that they say prohibits rule by non-believers over the faithful. In response, Ahok told one audience last September that they were being "fooled" with the verse. His comments were recorded and quickly went viral online. Ahok’s opponents accused him of insulting the Quran, and massive street protests followed. Islamist organizations like the Islamic Defenders Front showed that they have phenomenal mobilizing power.

The protests and associated outcry placed enormous pressure on the national government, and Ahok was charged with blasphemy — his trial is continuing.

The results were predictable: Ahok’s approval rating plunged. Although he eked out a first-round victory in February, he has consistently lagged in the polls leading to next week’s second round. This is despite the fact that Ahok — who took over as Jakarta governor when Joko Widodo, his then superior, was elected as Indonesia’s president in 2014 — was previously favored to win.

Ahok is widely admired in Jakarta for various government policies, especially improvements in healthcare, education, transportation, infrastructure and welfare programs. He is also admired for his tongue-lashings of bureaucrats and legislators he accuses of corruption or incompetence.

Yet numerous surveys have shown that religious solidarity is trumping government performance in this election. A poll conducted last month found that 66 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with Ahok’s performance as governor. Yet only 41 percent said they would vote for him, with 49 percent favoring his opponent. For 21.6 percent of respondents, religion was the main factor determining their choice of candidate, whereas only 16.3 percent cited a record of achievement. The obvious conclusion is that a significant proportion of the city’s Muslim voters, despite being satisfied with the work of their governor, for religious reasons will not vote for him.

When Indonesian electoral candidates make ethnic or religious appeals, they mostly adopt a benign approach: they emphasize their membership of a particular ethnic or religious group without denigrating others. By contrast, the campaign against Ahok has been relentlessly negative.

At the grassroots, a legion of preachers and activists have striven to convince Muslim voters not only that Ahok insulted their religion, but also that it is forbidden to vote for a kafir — an unbeliever. Friday sermons at the city’s mosques have become important campaign arenas. Fevered rumors about floods of Chinese nationals illegally planning to vote for Ahok have swept through social media and been fanned by Anies’ backers. There has been a resurgence of racist denigration of ethnic Chinese of a sort not seen for years.

Though Anies Baswedan — a Muslim intellectual who previously had cultivated a reputation as a pluralist — has not personally engaged in crude attacks on Ahok, he has instead run a dog-whistle campaign signaling his Muslim credentials and reaching out to extremist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front. An army of proxies is mobilizing religious and ethnic appeals against Ahok on his behalf.

This tide of ethnic and religious mobilization will likely push Ahok from power. The unanswered question is the extent to which the election represents a marker of broader social and political transformation. On the one hand, the election is an unusual test case for Indonesian pluralism, given Ahok’s double-minority status and the vulnerability his opponents were provided by the blasphemy case. On the other hand, observers have long noted growing pietism in Indonesia’s Muslim population as well as increasing assertiveness by those espousing intolerant religious ideas.

Jakarta sets the pace for national politics, and politicians may see this election as a toolkit that can be used in other contests — including the 2019 presidential race. If ethnic and religious sectarian politics push Ahok’s opponent over the line, it would bode poorly for the future of Indonesia’s pluralistic democracy.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White