Christian governor Ahok used to enjoy a 70% acceptance rating but then went his blasphemy trial for allegedly insulting Islam. Now the vote is too close to call

It was in 2004, as a PhD student in political science at Northern Illinois University, that Anies Baswedan would meditate the future interplay between Islam and Indonesia.

In his paper, political Islam in Indonesia, existing and future trajectory, Baswedan pointed out that, fertile ground exists for Islam-friendly political parties to attract substantial support from Muslim voters. Muslim voters, he explains in the footnotes, referred to under devout and practising adherents of the faith.

More than a decade on, Baswedan is campaigning to become Jakartas next governor and seems to have wholeheartedly taken his own advice. Analysts say he has overtly courted the Muslim vote in the tight race against the ethnic Chinese Christian incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok.

On Wednesday, more than 7 million Jakartans will head to the polls in one of the most contested elections to date, marked by several massive, Islamic-inspired anti-Ahok rallies late last year, and an ongoing controversial blasphemy trial.

Anies Baswedan, right, and his deputy Sandiaga Uno campaign in Jakarta. Photograph: Antara Foto/ Reuters

Neither Ahok nor Baswedan, a former education rector, won an outright majority in the first round poll this February when Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was knocked out.

Days out from the second and final round, Baswedan is just one point ahead, according to a survey by Saifiul Manjuni Research and Consulting( SMRC) released on 12 April. But before Ahok became engulfed in the blasphemy trial for allegedly insulting Islam, the picture seemed most varied the incumbent had an acceptance rating of more than 70%.

The religion card

The only way to beat him, analysts tell, would be to play the religion card and appeal to the Islamic base.

Aleksius Jemadu, dean of political sciences at Pelita Harapan University, mentions: We cannot underestimate the effect of using religion, the last tool they could use in order to win the election considering the fact that quite a lot of people in Jakarta are conservative Muslims.

So it is a source of strength for Anies[ Baswedan] to capitalise on that issue, he adds, on religion sentiment.

Baswedan, a former rector of Paramadina University, was seen as a religion moderate before, the type to write an editorial in defence of religion tolerance.

But as the Jakarta governor race has stiffened Baswedans public image has morphed, argues Hendro Prasteyo, a prof of political sociology at Indonesias State Islamic University.

From the beginning of November until now you can see how Anies ever applies religion gestures. For instance, he ever wear the black peci , the black cap, mentions Prasetyo, of the hat often worn by Muslim men.

He is going to mosques, and then preaching in the mosque and he likewise proves his closeness to radical groups like the FPI[ the Islamic Defenders Front ]. The degree is to demonstrate he is close to Muslims, and he represents Muslims , notes Prasetyo, He has had huge success by utilizing religion symbols, which is contradictory to what he was before.

Protesters meet for a protest against minority Christian governor Basuki Ahok Tjahaja Purnama at the main business district in Jakarta in March 2017. Photograph: Tatan Syuflana/ AP

Basewdan, concurs Jemadu, is less statesman, more politician these days.

I dont think that you can categorise him[ Baswedan] as a humankind of principle, mentions prof Jemadu, He is quite pragmatic. Whatever benefits him he will take it, from one camp to another camp changing his principles, his values, all the way.

Amid the blasphemy proceedings, the sometimes-brash Ahok has kept a lower than normal profile, opting for slick social media coverage and largely rejecting interviews.

Anies is against Ahok, and Ahok is Christian

The ethnic Chinese Christian governor understands the importance of religion symbols, too. Three periods before the voting rights he is scheduled to inaugurate a new government-funded mosque in West Jakarta, with the president, Joko Widodo, by his side.

The use of religion symbols is nothing new in Indonesian politics, but the differences, ethnic and religion, have perhaps never been so stark, or as sensitive.

In neighbourhoods across the capital the idea that Muslims must choose Muslim leaders has spread over recent months, propagated in anti-Ahok pamphlets and banners strung up at local mosques, which threaten to deny funeral rights to Muslims who vote for Ahok.

Basuki Ahok Tjahaja Purnama arrives for his blasphemy occurrence. Photograph: Tatan Syuflana/ AP

More than 1,000 such discriminatory banners have been drawn down so far, an Ahok spokesperson told the Guardian. Baswedan has also condemned them saying that if mosques refused an Ahok voter he would perform the burial rites himself.

But in the capital of the worlds largest Muslim-majority nation, the messaging has been effective. According to the SMRC survey, the main reason voters are choosing Baswedan is because they share the same religion.

Its ideology, explains Prasetyo, Most people dont have sufficient information about Anies so what they see is Anies is against Ahok, and Ahok is Christian and Chinese, thats it. Thats a highly simplified style of insight, and thats enough. It shows how religion in Indonesia is still very, very important, and its dangerous, he says.

Baswedan has denied pandering to Islamists, arguing the media has unfairly framed him meeting with the hardliners. His spokesman, Pandji Pragiwaksono, points out that Baswedan has repeatedly said religion should not be used as a weapon, and that he has in fact fulfilled various groups, because he wants to unify the city.

It is not Baswedan who has changed, he mentions, but the mood in the capital. It is not about him changing his stance or who he is, it is the situation that has changed and people are reacting to the situation by showing is supportive of Anies, he says.

What has changed is that we have a challenger in the Jakarta governor election race who is Christian, he mentions, That is new and that kind of ignites the hardliners.

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