Tight finish likely in Jakarta polls after final TV debate

Latest opinion survey shows candidates separated by just 1 percentage point

No winners were declared after last night's Jakarta gubernatorial election debate at the Bidakara Hotel in South Jakarta, at least not officially.

But the two pairs of candidates vying for the job of governing Indonesia's capital are hoping they have done enough to win over swing voters in what has been a neck-and-neck race for City Hall.

The run-off poll will be held next Wednesday after incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and his deputy, Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat, failed to secure the majority needed to win the Feb 15 election.

Now, according to the latest opinion poll, just 1 percentage point separates them from rival candidates Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno.

The challengers led at 47.9 per cent in an electability survey which was released yesterday by pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC). The survey, with a 4.7 per cent margin of error, recorded 5.2 per cent of voters as undecided.

Winning over these swing votes added to the high stakes at yesterday's debate, the last official one before the run-off election.

Polling experts have found such debates, telecast on prime-time TV, to be game-changers for election candidates - giving those who perform well a significant boost.

SMRC analyst Saidiman Ahmad said he expects Basuki's electability to rise because the Chinese Christian tends to excel over his opponents in public debates.

However, Basuki, popularly known as Ahok, has endured a rough time on the campaign trail.

Currently on trial for blasphemy, he has had to contend with Muslim hardliners taking to the streets to protest against him for allegedly insulting Islam. His opponents, all of whom are Muslims, have also often played the religion card against him.

But being Chinese and Christian in the overwhelmingly Muslim country did not affect his popularity when he first inherited the job in 2014, after former Jakarta governor Joko Widodo was elected president.

The SMRC study also found that 76 per cent of voters surveyed were satisfied with Basuki's performance as governor. But half said they would not vote for him at the April 19 poll.

Observers say such sentiments, along with the series of anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta, have not only put Indonesia's racial and religious tolerance to the test, but have also threatened its status as one of the world's largest democracies.

Negative sentiments against Basuki have continued in recent days.

The Jakarta Elections Supervisory Agency yesterday said it was investigating a video showing a group pledging not to vote for an infidel leader in what was seen as a veiled attack on Basuki.

Also this week, Marvel Comics sacked Indonesian X-Men artist Ardian Syaf for hiding references apparently against Basuki in a comic.

Mr Saidiman noted that despite the opposition to Basuki, support for the Ahok-Djarot pairing is on an uptrend, having risen by 3.1 percentage points, compared with the Anies-Sandiaga team, which fell by 2.8 percentage points.

The SMRC analyst said a key reason for the increase in support for Ahok-Djarot was the candidates' performance in a March 27 debate organised by MetroTV.

Said Mr Saidiman: "Our survey found that debates on TV influence the decision (of voters).

"About 45 per cent of citizens watched the debate on Metro TV... Among those who watched it, the majority (63 per cent) considered Ahok more superior to Anies."

• Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Tight finish likely in Jakarta polls after final TV debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe