Jakarta's Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (second left), greets supporters on Feb. 15, following the first round of voting in the city's governor election. (ucanews.com photo)
A campaign to exploit religious sentiments by his Muslim rival and hard-line groups is threatening to derail the re-election bid of Christian governor candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, political observers say.
Recent opinion polls have the incumbent governor, popularly known as Ahok, trailing his Muslim rival ahead of the Jakarta gubernatorial election runoff next month.
Pollster Indonesian Survey Circle had Ahok with 40 percent, while his rival Anies Rasyid Baswedan — supported by hard-line Muslims — was leading with 49 percent.
Another pollster, the Indonesian Survey Institute, had Ahok on 39.7 percent, and Baswedan on 46.3 percent.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy director of the rights group Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace said a marked drop in support for Ahok was mainly due the politicization of religion "which has taken root" since Ahok emerged as the front-runner in the first round of voting on Feb. 15.
Ahok won 42.9 percent of the vote, while Baswedan gained 39.9 percent.
"Exploiting religion is the only way Ahok's rival can beat him, because the governor's policies during his first term were popular with a majority of Jakarta's citizens," he said.
It's an anomaly, he said. Despite 65 percent of the public being satisfied with him, they do not want him to have a second term just because he is a non-Muslim.
Usep Ahyar, a political analyst from Populi Center said the strong influence of religious issues should not be underestimated, suggesting an intimidatory tone is being used on Muslims not to vote for Ahok.
"Many people are losing their freedom to make choices. They are overcome by fear to fight the tactics being employed by religious leaders and certain groups fighting against Ahok," he said.
Religion for sale
This has been seen with support for Baswedan intensifying in recent weeks. Tactics employed on the electorate have been calls for mosques to prohibit funeral ceremonies for Muslims "who vote for an infidel leader or blasphemer."
On March 11, several Muslims heckled Ahok's deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat, calling him an "infidel" and barred him from entering a mosque in East Jakarta.
An online campaign has carried messages saying that those voting for non-Muslims will not enter heaven.
The religious war on Ahok has continued unabated since late last year when the Christian governor was accused of and later charged with blasphemy. He is currently on trial and could face imprisonment if found guilty.
Father Yohanes Kristoforus Tara, an outspoken priest from the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, described the using of religion to grab power as "the most vulgar of sectarian politics."
He was particularly scathing of the call for mosque funeral bans.
"Restore religion to its essence. Let religion bring liberation to its adherents. Return worship places to sanctity, and let people die freely facing God," he said.
Ahmad Syiafii Maarif, a well-known moderate Muslim, has condemned the tactics being employed in the Jakarta election, saying religion has been sold for a cheap price.
"It is unfortunate that these kind of people exist in our nation," he said.
Taufik Basari, one Ahok's campaign team admitted that the stoking of religious sentiments has put them in difficult situation.
"But we will ensure that more people are aware that [religious tension] is certainly having a negative impact on our country," he said.