JAKARTA, Indonesia – Millions of Indonesians in the capital Jakarta are electing a governor Wednesday after a polarizing campaign that undermined the country’s reputation for practicing a tolerant form of Islam.
The runoff election pits the minority Christian incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, against a former Cabinet minister, Anies Baswedan, who has courted the support of conservative clerics who oppose electing a non-Muslim.
The Jakarta election battle has cracked open religious and ethnic fault-lines and highlighted the growing strength of hard-line Islamic groups in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Massive protests against Ahok, who is on trial for blaspheming the Quran, shook the centrist minded government of his ally President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
More than 13,000 polling places were open Wednesday for Jakarta’s 7.1 million eligible voters.
National police chief Tito Karnavian has said thousands of police and military personnel would be deployed to secure the vote from intimidation.
In the west Jakarta neighborhood of Kebon Jeruk, polling station No. 69 was guarded by two police officers, a soldier and several public order officers from the city administration.
“I voted for Anies not just because I would sin if choosing a non-Muslim leader, but because I’m sure Jakarta will be better without Ahok,” said Annisa Karolina, a 29-year-old restaurant cashier.
A couple standing near her nodded in agreement. “Yes, we need a new governor, a well-mannered Muslim governor who isn’t pro-tycoons and businessmen, but who is also helping the poor,” one of them, Faturrachman, said.
Baswedan and Ahok were neck in neck in opinion polls released earlier this week. So called “quick count” results by research companies, which give a reliable indicator of voting, will be available within hours of the polls closing at 1 p.m.
Ahok, who is Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese governor and first Christian in half a century, has been popular with middle-class Jakartans for his efforts to stamp out corruption in the city administration and make the overflowing polluted capital more livable.
But his brash manner and evictions of slum communities alienated many in the city of 10 million. Opponents seized their moment last year when a video surfaced of Ahok telling voters they were being deceived if they believed a specific verse in the Quran prohibited Muslims from electing a non-Muslim as leader.
Hundreds of thousands flocked to protests against Ahok in Jakarta that derided his Chinese heritage and called for him to be imprisoned or killed.
After voting early Wednesday in his north Jakarta neighborhood, Ahok urged people to vote and said there was no need to be afraid as polling stations were guarded.
Sulistyo Nugraha, a bank employee who voted in west Jakarta, said he was not influenced by Islamic preachers who said voting for a Christian would be a sin.
“I’m Muslim but I don’t believe that any other candidate will be better than Ahok to lead Jakarta,” he said.
“We should think more realistically in choosing a leader for our city. Ahok has proved to us that he has made Jakarta a lot better, both in administrative services and infrastructure, and most importantly: he is clean, that’s all we need.”
On Thursday, prosecutors will make their sentencing demand in Ahok’s trial. Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Indonesia and punishable by up to five years in prison.
AP Writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.