Update: Christian Governor of Jakarta, Accused of Blasphemy, Loses Re-Election Bid

By Patrick Goodenough | April 19, 2017 | 4:25 AM EDT

Muslims protest against Jakarta’s Christian Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in central Jakarta on Friday, March 31, 2017. Slogans on headbands read: ‘Put blasphemer in jail.’ (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana, File)

(Update: Jakarta's first Christian governor in half a century has lost his re-election bid, with unofficial results showing his Muslim challenger won by around 57 percentage points to 42. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's campaign was marked by allegations of blasphemy and mass protests by Islamic hardliners calling for him to be jailed or even executed. Purnama was due to reappear in court on blasphemy charges on Thursday.).

(CNSNews.com) – After a campaign marred by religious tensions, charges of blasphemy, and threats of violence, millions of voters in the Indonesian capital go to the polls Wednesday to choose between the incumbent Christian governor and a Muslim challenger.

One day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to arrive for a two-day visit, more than 60,000 police and soldiers are being deployed in a bid to prevent violence, especially from hardline Islamists who accuse Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of blasphemy.

Habib Rizieq, a radical cleric who heads the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and has previously served prison terms for incitement, has urged supporters to travel to Jakarta Wednesday for a battle which he says pits Islam’s defenders against blasphemers.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, himself a former Jakarta governor, called for calm and urged all residents to vote without fear.

The head of the metropolitan police has ordered a ban on any mass gathering that could cause physical or psychological intimidation during the election, and says police will prevent the mass entry of people from outside the city.

Opinion polls indicate that the race is too close to call, but whether Purnama wins or loses, he is due to reappear in a Jakarta court on Thursday for his ongoing blasphemy trial, which is due to end next month. If convicted he could be sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

The FPI has threatened mass protests if Purnama wins.

Purnama was not elected governor, but moved up from the deputy governorship after then-governor Widodo was elected Indonesia’s president in 2014.

His status as the first Christian governor of the capital in half a century angered hardline Muslims, but since he inherited the governorship, this election provides the first opportunity for his detractors to unseat him.

Purnama’s critics assert that the Qur’an forbids Muslims to align themselves with Christians or Jews, basing their argument on a verse (Qur’an 5:51) that reads in part, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.”

While campaigning last fall, Purnama reportedly told voters that they were being lied to by people who were misquoting that verse to justify their argument that Muslims should not be ruled by non-Muslims.

His accusers allege, however, that he had stated that voters had been lied to by the Qur’an itself, and after mass protest rallies, authorities agreed to prosecute him for allegedly blaspheming the revered scripture.

Purnama faces criminal charges under two articles of the national criminal code, one dealing with “blasphemy” – defined as actions that defame a religion with the intention of preventing other people from adhering to any religion that is based on belief in one God – and the other with the spreading of hatred or contempt directed at a population group.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most-populous country and most populous Muslim nation.

Some 85 percent of Jakarta’s residents are Muslims, but many in the city have regarded Purnama as an effective, straight-talking administrator.

His rival in the race, former culture and education minister Anies Baswedan, is a close ally of Prabowo Subianto, the politician who was defeated by Widodo in the 2014 presidential election and plans to challenge him again in 2019. As such, the governor’s race is seen as having national political ramifications.

Wednesday’s vote is a runoff; in a first round last February, Purnama beat Baswedan by 42.9 points to 40 while a third candidate garnered 17 percent of the votes. Analysts predict that runoff turnout will be higher than the 77 percent recorded in February.

The FPI has long been associated with the forced closure of churches and raids on “un-Islamic” liquor and gambling businesses. During the Iraq war it claimed to have signed up scores of volunteers to fight against U.S. forces there.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow