The Straits Times says

When religion and race influence polls

The first round of voting for the gubernatorial election in Jakarta seems to have gone in predictable ways, after the blatant way politicians courted the Islamic vote. Exit polls suggest a run-off between incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian, and Muslim scholar Anies Baswedan, who was regarded as a moderate. However, during the campaigning, Mr Anies drew criticism for associating with the firebrand head of a hardline Islamic group who is vigorously accusing Basuki of blasphemy. If a run-off election in April is ordered, Governor Basuki thinks the campaigning could turn "very ugly". Supporters of the losing third candidate, whose father was the nation's president for a decade before Mr Joko Widodo, might vote along religious lines.

It is, of course, for Indonesians to decide who to elect as local leaders. Yet, the concern of the region is the manner in which both local and national elections are conducted in the world's largest nation of Muslims. Indonesia has a strong pluralist tradition which the world would hope will persevere despite the exertions of hardliners. The street protests by Islamists against Basuki raised fears about strains to the secular fabric, especially because mainstream politicians appeared to be also playing the communal card, for the sake of capturing the vote. That is not particular to Indonesia, of course, and happens in other large, bustling democracies too. But taken too far, the mixing of religion, race and politics could lead to catastrophic results.

One can take some comfort that millions of moderate Indonesian Muslims continue to lend support to Basuki - or Ahok, as he is widely called- on the basis of his work to meet the needs of Jakarta. Few would disagree that his handling of the vast and bustling metropolis has been efficient, if occasionally blunt. This treads, however, on the toes of the city's influential Establishment, with its many cosy relationships. Moreover, as what happens in Jakarta has influence in the rest of the country, the political parties are viewing the local election as a proxy for the next presidential race. This makes any success achieved by Basuki a dangerous threat to the traditional centres of power, which would like to unseat Mr Joko as early as in 2019, when he is due to seek a mandate for a second term.

Indonesia's progress will get a boost if global investors - who last year put in US$16 billion (S$23 billion) into the nation's manufacturing sector alone - continue to have confidence that political stability will not be undermined by extremists. Much work lies ahead in pushing ahead with large-scale infrastructure projects, improving the business climate, curbing corruption and graft, and tackling social inequity. Such worthwhile efforts will be undermined if religion is allowed to set the agenda.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'When religion and race influence polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe