Indonesia's Widodo calls for unity in Jakarta's nail-biting vote


Polls closed after a mostly smooth vote on Wednesday in Jakarta's divisive election between a Muslim and a Christian candidate that stoked religious tensions in the capital of the world's third-largest democracy.

Police said 15 people were detained following reports of disturbances at several polling stations in the city of 10 million people, after what the Jakarta Post this week dubbed "the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive" election campaign the nation had ever seen.

"Political differences should not break our unity," President Joko Widodo said in a statement after casting his ballot at a central Jakarta polling station. "We are all brothers and sisters. Whoever is elected, we must accept."

Opinion polls in the run-up to the election pointed to a dead-heat between the incumbent governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama – the city's first Christian and ethnic-Chinese leader – and a former education minister, Anies Baswedan, who like 85 percent of Jakarta's residents, is Muslim.

Given Jakarta's outsized importance as both the nation's capital and commercial centre, the election could be a barometer for the 2019 presidential election.

Purnama is backed by President Joko Widodo's ruling party. Baswedan, is backed by a conservative retired general, Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Widodo in a 2014 presidential vote and may challenge him again. But the election is also viewed as a test for Indonesia's young democracy and record of religious tolerance, with both sides raising concerns about intimidation and voter fraud.

The campaign featured mass rallies led by a hard-line Islamist movement, which has strengthened in recent years in a country long dominated by a moderate form of Islam.

"Don't let any cheating happen, because the future of Jakarta is determined by the election today," Purnama, 50, told reporters after voting with his family in North Jakarta.

His rival, Baswedan, 47, said as he voted in the south of the city that the election was being closely watched at home and abroad, so it was important to avoid an atmosphere of tension.

Polls closed at 1 p.m. with 7 million people eligible to vote. Security appeared light at several polling stations, though police said 66,000 personnel were deployed across the city.

Police in neighbouring provinces on Java island searched private cars and public buses heading for Jakarta on Tuesday to look for sharp objects and explosives.

Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono said police had stopped and searched vehicle heading for Jakarta on Tuesday to ensure "no movement of masses toward the capital".

Religious tensions have been an undercurrent in the campaign, with Purnama on trial for blasphemy over comments he made last year that many took to be insulting to Islam. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets late last year to call for his sacking and to urge voters not to elect a non-Muslim leader. One person died and more than 100 were injured after one protest turned violent.

Police fear Islamic leaders could incite a fresh bout of unrest if Purnama wins the election.

Purnama faces up to five years in jail if convicted of blasphemy. His trial will resume on Thursday, when prosecutors will submit a sentence request.

"We are worried things could be hotter if the results are quite close," said Isabella Hariyono, a 30-year-old voter in North Jakarta. "We hope things don't heat up. The police and military are ready but we never know."

Private pollsters, approved by the national elections commission, are expected to announce an unofficial tabulation of a sample of votes, known as "quick counts", within a few hours of polls closing. The elections commission is expected to announce official results by the first week of May.

The loser can contest the results in the Constitutional Court, which could prolong political uncertainty for weeks.

Citigroup said in an investor note that, despite the potential for renewed protests if Purnama won, it was maintaining a Jakarta stock index target of 6,150 by the end of 2017, representing an 8 percent upside.

"As long as there are no security issues, the election outcome should not significantly stall the reform programme of the national government, in our view," it said.    (Reuters)

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