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Christian governor of Jakarta ousted after tense election in world's biggest Muslim country

In a campaign laced with religious and ethnic tensions, the minority Christian governor of Indonesia’s sprawling capital was unseated by a former education minister backed by conservative Islamists, unofficial results showed Wednesday.

With nearly all the votes counted, polling companies said Anies Baswedan won about 60% of the vote in a runoff election to lead the city of 10 million people, soundly defeating incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent.

The bitter campaign evolved into a test of ethnic and religious tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, long seen as a bastion of moderate Islam.

Purnama, better known as Ahok, is facing blasphemy charges over remarks that allegedly insulted Islam’s holy book, the Koran. Hundreds of thousands of Islamist demonstrators took to the streets during the campaign, demanding that Purnama be jailed.

Although Purnama was widely perceived as a problem-solving administrator who cleared riverside slums and shuttered brothels, his blunt, confrontational manner was at odds with the more diffident style of Indonesian politics.

Unofficial results showed he won about 40% of the vote, roughly the same as in the first round of the election in February, indicating that he did not attract additional support in a city that is 80% Muslim.

“If you look at the [preelection] surveys, Ahok gets 70% of people satisfied with his work, but when asked if you will vote for Ahok the number drops to 40%,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairman of the Setara Institute, a Jakarta research organization.

“It is because of the religious sentiment,” Naipospos said.

The result was a blow to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who preceded Purnama as the capital’s governor. It came a day before Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit Indonesia and meet with Widodo on the third leg of an Asian Pacific tour that includes South Korea, Japan and Australia.

Baswedan’s margin of victory was a surprise, as polls in the week leading up to the runoff showed the candidates running neck and neck.

“Few would have predicted that it would be such a landslide victory,” said Charlotte Setijadi of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank in Singapore. “Pretty much all the preelection polling data suggested a much tighter race or even a stalemate."

Baswedan, who was fired in 2016 as Widodo’s education minister, made a political comeback after allying with Islamists who staged mass demonstrations twice in late 2016 calling for Purnama’s removal — and in some cases his execution.

The demonstrations ended with Widodo joining protest leaders onstage under a Jakarta thunderstorm in early December in an apparent bid to neutralize the campaign against the governor.

Baswedan’s aides denied that they pandered to religious hard-liners.

“We went back to focusing on unity, jobs, cost of living, education,” said Sandiaga Uno, a businessman who will serve as deputy governor under Baswedan.

But asked about the tone of the campaign, Uno acknowledged, “It has been divisive, toward nasty.”

Baswedan was supported by Prabowo Subianto, a former general whom Widodo defeated for president in 2014. Subianto is said to be eyeing a rerun of that contest in 2019.

But Widodo — a mild-mannered former furniture salesman known by the nickname Jokowi — remains popular for his efforts to cut red tape, boost small business and upgrade the country’s aging infrastructure.The Jakarta election “creates momentum for Prabowo for sure,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, Indonesia. “But a major blow to Jokowi? Don't think so.”

Roughneen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
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