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Race and religion crop up in Jakarta polls

Publication Date : 11-08-2012

 

Should a non-Muslim be voted in as deputy governor of Jakarta?

That is the big debate swirling around the Jakarta governor's election after controversial

dangdut singer and preacher Rhoma Irama voiced out last Sunday that they must not do so.

His comments have sparked outrage and widespread media comment in Indonesia - a country known for its religious tolerance in the past, but whose reputation has been dented in recent years by bombings and killings involving extremist Muslims, and attacks by vigilante Muslim groups on churches and followers of the minority Ahmadiah sect.

"Muslims who vote for a non-Muslim leader become an enemy of God," Rhoma said at a Ramadan lecture at a Jakarta mosque last week.

The remarks brought the issue of race and religion smack into the heated campaign to be elected Jakarta's governor and deputy governor.

The polls are watched closely because the winners effectively control Indonesia's capital of 9.8million people and an annual budget of 36 trillion rupiah (US$3.79 billion). The election is also a bellwether of the country's sentiments towards political parties and issues.

The Jakarta face-off on September 20 is between incumbent Fauzi Bowo and running mate Nachrowi Ramli, and challenger Surakarta mayor Joko Widodo and running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

Of the four men, three are Muslims. Basuki, on the other hand, is a Chinese and a Christian. This has led to whispers on the ground on whether it would be right for Muslims, who form 85 per cent of Jakarta's population, to vote for him.

Fauzi's team was beaten by Joko's in the first round of the contest last month, in which six pairs of contenders took part. Since no pair managed to get 50 per cent of the votes, the run-off between the two leading ones will be held next month.

In a video recording of his lecture in the mosque made available to reporters, Rhoma said: "Joko Widodo has greater ambition and is using the governorship as a stepping stone.

"Eventually, the one leading Jakarta will be Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese in ethnicity and a Christian."

Rhoma added: "If the capital of a Muslim country is led by a Christian, it would be an embarrassment."

According to the Rakyat Merdeka daily, the popular singer-preacher had also attacked Joko by alleging that the mayor's parents were Christian. Joko has denied this, saying both his parents were Muslim.

Rhoma was called up by the Election Supervisory Committee on Monday to clarify his comments. He was ticked off by the authorities but declined to apologise, claiming that he had done nothing wrong.

For its part, Joko's campaign team said it had forgiven the preacher. "We don't expect an apology from him over this matter, but it will show a great deal of character if he chose to give one," said Denny Iskandar, a campaign official.

The preacher's remarks have sparked debate in the media while raising concerns over the political tension generated.

Commentator Ary Hermawan wrote in The Jakarta Post that while the capital city has always been relatively inclusive of all people regardless of racial or religious backgrounds, "the idea of having a Christian leader is still considered taboo by the Muslim majority".

Political consultant and former legislator Alvin Lie, an ethnic Chinese, told The Straits Times that competition had pushed both sides into using race and religion as an issue to hit out at their rivals instead of engaging over each other's track record and programme for Jakarta.

"This is very dangerous as things can get out of control... that can even spark something untoward. The authorities should take stern action to stop this and impose heavy sanctions on those who whipped up religious sentiments."

A Jakarta business group warned on Monday that fanning such sentiments could prove dangerous in a city that has still not come to terms with attacks on the Chinese in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis.

"If it's no longer deemed safe, foreign business people, investors and tourists will stop coming to Jakarta," said the head of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Indigenous Entrepreneurs Association, Sarman Simanjorang.

 

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