Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, right, and his deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat campaign Saturday.

Story highlights

Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and opponent Anies Baswedan likely to be in April runoff

The Chinese Christian incumbent faces blasphemy trial over comments on Quran

CNN  — 

It’s an election that could change Indonesia.

Voters in the capital of Jakarta went to the polls Wednesday to elect a new governor.

But more is at stake than who governs the sprawling, chaotic metropolis of 30 million people.

The contest between the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian commonly known as Ahok, and his two Muslim opponents has raised questions over whether Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, will remain a moderate Muslim society.

It could even determine who will be the next president of Indonesia after the 2019 national election.

Preliminary exit polls and surveys have Ahok and former Education and Culture Minister Anies Baswedan as the top two candidates, with neither breaking the 50% threshold to prevent a runoff.

Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, after casting his vote at a polling station on Wednesday February 15.

A result won’t be known for two weeks, and if no one wins a majority, a second round of voting will take place April 19.

“If (incumbent) Ahok (were) to lose, other than politicians using religion as a tool, Islamists will use it to change Islam into Indonesia to their own meaning, that isn’t Indonesian,” Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Indonesian think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN.

“They will gain an upper hand. (This) will be the first litmus test.”

Polling data before Wednesday’s election showed Ahok and Baswedan were expected to face off in the second round in April.

Indonesians rally in support of Muslim clerics at the National Monument in Jakarta this month.

Rise of conservatism

More than 200 million Muslims – 87% of the population – call Indonesia home.

It’s generally a moderate country known for a tolerance for other religions and ways of life with the exception of the conservative Aceh province.

“Indonesia’s political Islam is very different from the Middle East – for example, non-Muslim leaders of a Muslim majority is normal; intermarriage is accepted,” researcher Basuki said.

However, experts say Indonesia is becoming increasingly conservative, with large anti-LGBT protests in Jakarta and passionate reactions to allegations of blasphemy commonplace in recent years.

Ahok is from two prominent minorities – he’s a Christian and of Chinese ethnicity. Both have been made an issue in the governor’s campaign, said Greg Fealy, an associate professor in Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

He is also on trial over allegations of blasphemy after an edited video of his comments about the Quran triggered large demonstrations.

“It’s fairly clear that he was charged with blasphemy for political reasons, because they had to acquiesce to what the mob wanted – that is a bad thing for Indonesia,” Fealy told CNN.

If Ahok loses the election, Fealy said, Indonesian political parties may be less likely to field candidates from ethnic and religious minorities.

“If there was a major position, like governor of East Java, for a minority, this is too big a risk,” he said.