Rivals join protest prayer against governor Ahok

A big crowd at a mass prayer at Masjid Istiqlal in Jakarta yesterday. Ms Sylviana Murni and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, backed by the Democratic Party, and Mr Anies Baswedan and Mr Sandiaga Uno, backed by the Gerindra Party, were among those who tur
A big crowd at a mass prayer at Masjid Istiqlal in Jakarta yesterday. Ms Sylviana Murni and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, backed by the Democratic Party, and Mr Anies Baswedan and Mr Sandiaga Uno, backed by the Gerindra Party, were among those who turned up at the event.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Two pairs of Muslim candidates join 100,000 in rally at mosque amid highly divisive election

Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama spent the last morning of his re-election campaign at a meet- the-people session yesterday, while his rivals joined thousands of Muslims for a mass prayer at Masjid Istiqlal.

Pre-dawn prayers are held every day at the central mosque in Jakarta, but yesterday's gathering was organised by Muslim conservatives in what was really a veiled protest against Basuki, who is Chinese and Christian.

Basuki, better known as Ahok, has been on trial for insulting Islam since December last year.

He and his deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat are up against two pairs of Muslim candidates in what has been a highly divisive election.

The Forum of Muslims (FUI), a coalition of local Islamic groups, had rallied Muslims to join yesterday's first call to prayer, as a protest against Jakarta electing a non-Muslim governor. Despite a heavy downpour, the crowd, estimated to number 100,000, made their way to the Istiqlal mosque.

RELIGION AS CAMPAIGN TOOL

Religious sentiment cannot be separated from any election in Indonesia, where it has been widely used as a campaign tool... So it's normal that candidates take advantage of religious sentiment to garner votes.

DR ALI NURDIN, vice-rector from Mathla'ul Anwar University in Banten province.

Many, such as 41-year-old Umah Hilmawan, were heard chanting "God willing, Jakarta will get a leader who is soleh". "Soleh" refers to a Muslim who is deeply pious.

"We believe in Sylvi, the running mate of Agus, she will protect Muslims' interest," said Mr Umah, referring to Ms Sylviana Murni and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono - the son of former president, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The two, backed by Dr Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, are running against Basuki and his deputy.

The other pair of Muslim candidates are former education minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno, who are supported by 2014 presidential candidate and Gerindra Party patron Prabowo Subianto.

Yesterday's rally held by the FUI follows three anti-Ahok protests organised by the hardline Front Pembela Islam (FPI) last year, including one on Dec 4 where some 200,000 people took part in a mass prayer at the National Monument in Jakarta.

FPI leader Rizieq Shibab, who has been the fiercest critic of Basuki, was at the mosque yesterday to deliver a sermon. He is also the subject of multiple police investigations for defamation and spreading pornography, among other offences, and had failed to report for police questioning twice last week.

The police have now threatened to arrest him if he continues to ignore their summons.

About seven million Indonesians will vote for the next Jakarta governor in an election that experts say may have a bearing on the 2019 presidential race.

The appearance of Basuki's election rivals at the mosque was seen as a last-ditch effort to court the Muslim vote, after recent polls suggested the governor had clawed back the lead he enjoyed before he was accused of blasphemy last year.

The Gerindra and Democrat pairings did not address the crowd at the mosque and left after the first prayer session. Their attendance was criticised by some who said it politicises the sacred Muslim call to prayer.

However, some political experts, such as Dr Ali Nurdin, say the role of religion has been inherent in Indonesian politics for decades.

"Religious sentiment cannot be separated from any election in Indonesia, where it has been widely used as a campaign tool," said the vice-rector from Mathla'ul Anwar University in Banten province.

"So it's normal that candidates take advantage of religious sentiment to garner votes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Rivals join protest prayer against governor Ahok'. Print Edition | Subscribe