In conceding defeat in an ugly election, Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama urged his followers to "forget all the things that happened during the campaign". There were unrelenting street demonstrations organised by hardline Islamic groups and defiance of police orders near the presidential palace. Politicians blatantly used religion as a political tool and a blasphemy trial still hangs over Basuki. The campaign was described by The Jakarta Post as "the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive the nation has ever seen".
Basuki was being responsible when he called for calm last week and pledged to work closely during the interim with the presumed victor, Mr Anies Baswedan, a former minister and Muslim scholar. But the battle for the governorship, seen as a proxy for the 2019 presidential election, revealed how religion can be exploited to great effect. That's a trend that none should gloss over and forget. Given the results, more zealots might play the religious card to win votes when they are lagging at the polls. The swing witnessed in Jakarta was stark: Basuki once held a double-digit lead in opinion polls and, just this month, a survey showed 76 per cent of voters liked his work as governor. But being twice a minority - he's both Christian and Chinese - proved to be his downfall when the chips fell.
Such an outcome portends ill, all the more because Indonesia officially supports pluralism. At its independence, those who favoured secularism prevailed over others who wanted to set up a religious state governed by Islamic law. Since then, the nation's approach to religious tolerance had been widely held up as "a blueprint" for multicultural societies. But the old struggle was never really over. Since the government allowed Aceh province to establish Islamic law, hundreds of syariah-based ordinances have emerged over time at the local level elsewhere. "Aceh, once an outlier, has become a model" for other spots with similar impulses, as one observer noted. In Jakarta last week, Muslim hardliners exulted, with clenched fists held aloft, for having asserted their will convincingly there.
The concern of moderate Indonesians and external observers is for the fate of secularism, upon which rests the reformist agenda of President Joko Widodo. At a crucial point of the nation's development, voters can ill afford to march backwards into the future by heeding Islamists and reactionaries. Earlier, voters had signalled that competency, resolve and incorruptibility mattered more, when they backed both President Joko and Basuki who had defied the odds to become national figures. The fear for the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is that governance will suffer if meritocracy is waylaid by increasingly assertive religious extremists and politicians riding on their coat-tails.