Monday, 21 Augst 2017 | 13:39 WIB

The Opportunism Could Backfire on Anies Baswedan

Anies Baswedan holds his hands up, and some of his fingers have dye on them (ABC)

NETRALNEWS.COM - When Mike Pence stopped in Jakarta on Thursday, the American Vice President would land following an election whose outcome threatens Indonesia’s political stability along with the reform program of President Joko Widodo.

The election is for the governorship of Jakarta. The incumbent is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian, ethnically Chinese and known for being forthright, even abrasive.

He is being challenged by Anies Baswedan, a Muslim backed by Islamist groups. With more than half the ballots counted in Wednesday’s run-off, Mr. Baswedan leads by 14 percentage points, and Mr. Purnama has conceded defeat.

This is a surprise because Mr. Purnawa had enjoyed high approval ratings for his program of fighting corruption and trying to improve city services. But he faces keen opposition from Indonesian Islamists, who organized a series of rallies that at times turned violent.

The trouble began in November after some Islamist groups doctored a video of Mr. Purnama in which he criticized some clerics’ interpretation of the Quran to make it appear he attacked the Quran itself. Prosecutors have brought a dubious blasphemy case against him, but a sign of the political mood is that Mr. Widodo allowed the case to go forward.

The speed at which the Islamists were able to transform this governor’s race is a reminder that Indonesia’s democracy remains young and volatile.The consolation is that this is less about radical change in the beliefs of Indonesian voters than a reflection of the bitter battle between two groups of secular politicians—Mr. Widodo’s reformers and more traditional elites.

Radical groups were able to exploit this clash for their own purposes. Mr. Baswedan was previously known as a moderate Muslim and served as Mr. Widodo’s education minister until he was replaced in a July 2016 reshuffle.

His removal was largely driven by Mr. Widodo’s need to consolidate Muslim support in advance of the 2019 elections. This helps explain why Mr. Baswedan was replaced by a member of the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Muslim organization.

Mr. Baswedan was then recruited by the secular Gerindra Party, run by the son-in-law of the Indonesian dictator Suharto. Only after the Islamists began to attack Governor Purnama did Mr. Baswedan begin to advertise himself as a religious conservative. In January he gave a speech to the hardline Islamic Defenders Front and claimed the Quran prohibits voting for non-Muslims.

This opportunism could backfire on Mr. Baswedan, as his reformist views are unlikely to appeal to his new religious allies. Meanwhile the new governor will face pressure to help his backer General Prabowo gather support for the 2019 election, an agenda that is unlikely to be popular in Jakarta.

But Indonesians can’t afford to be complacent because Jakarta often sets the direction for national politics. The Islamist groups that threaten minorities and burn Christian churches have now proved they can be political kingmakers.

As the election for governor shows, the danger is that moderate politicians like Mr. Baswedan who seek to exploit communal tensions for short-term gain will end up setting back the country’s development.