Christian governor loses Jakarta run-off: pollsters

Jakarta (AFP) - Jakarta's Christian governor on Wednesday lost heavily to a Muslim former government minister in an election run-off, private polls indicated, after a divisive battle that has damaged Indonesia's reputation as a bastion of tolerant Islam.

Anies Baswedan, who was accused of pandering to hardliners to win votes, and his supporters cheered as news came through that surveys showed him winning by over 10 percentage points against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was fighting for his job while standing trial for blasphemy.

Official results are not expected until early May but the private pollsters, who count a sample of votes, are usually accurate.

The vote was seen as a test of whether the moderate Islam traditionally practised in the world's most populous Muslim country is under threat from hardliners, who have led a series of mass demonstrations against Purnama over allegations he insulted the Koran.

It came against a backdrop of rising religious intolerance that has tainted the image of the diverse Indonesian archipelago as a pluralistic country in recent years, with a surge in attacks on minorities.

Baswedan, a former education minister, thanked Jakarta's voters for supporting him and hinted that he would move to heal the divisions in the capital after the bitter poll, if his victory was confirmed.

"We celebrate diversity... We are all ready to work together again," the 47-year-old said.

Purnama, the city's first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, congratulated Baswedan and his running mate, adding: "We are all the same, we want a good Jakarta, because it is our home."

The defeat is also a blow for President Joko Widodo, whose party had backed Purnama.

- 'Stay unified' -

The incumbent had long been a shoo-in to win re-election after gaining popularity due to his determined efforts to clean up Jakarta.

But the governor -- known by his nickname Ahok -- lost a once-unassailable lead after a controversy erupted last year over claims that he had insulted Islam, a grave charge in Indonesia.

His troubles began in September when he lightheartedly said in a speech that his rivals were tricking people into voting against him by using a Koranic verse, which some interpret as meaning Muslims should only choose Muslim leaders.

The allegations drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests, and led to Purnama being put on trial for blasphemy in a case critics see as politically motivated.

Purnama won in the election's first round in February but Baswedan was seen as the favourite in the run-off because the votes from a third, Muslim, candidate who was knocked out were expected to go to him.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote indicated that the race was neck and neck but in the event Baswedan strongly defeated Purnama, the pollsters indicated. They showed him with about 57 percent to Purnama on 43 percent.

More than 7.2 million people were registered to vote in the polls, which are also important as politicians view them as a potential stepping stone to the presidency in 2019.

After an anti-Purnama protest last year turned violent, authorities were taking no chances and over 60,000 security force personnel had been deployed but there was little sign of unrest.

Purnama's long-running blasphemy trial began in December. Prosecutors are due to recommend a sentence on Thursday, and a verdict is expected within weeks.

Many voters still supported Purnama due to his performance as governor since 2014. He had won praise for cleaning up once-filthy rivers and creating more green spaces, although his acerbic style had upset some.

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