A resounding win by an Indonesian mayor targeted by some hardline Muslims over the construction of a church highlighted a broader failure by Islamists to influence regional and local elections in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.
Rahmat Effendi, the mayor of Bekasi, a city of 2.7 million on the fringes of the capital Jakarta, is on course to be re-elected after winning about 68 per cent of the vote in Wednesday’s elections based on unofficial quick counts.
Effendi, a Muslim, faced sustained criticism from hardliners for approving the building of the Santa Clara church in the staunchly Muslim city after 17 years of rebuffs by local authorities.
Tensions boiled over last year when riot police used tear gas to subdue protesters attacking the site where the church was being built. The mayor was also lambasted by prominent clerics and pilloried in social media posts falsely claiming he planned to allow hundreds more churches.
His victory, and exit polling of voters, showed that the religious and ethnic divisions that characterized last year’s race for Jakarta governor were largely absent in elections for 171 city mayors, regents and provincial governors, said pollster Djayadi Hanan.
“There was an effort to use identity politics, especially Islamism, as an issue in this election. It didn’t work,” said Djayadi, executive director of Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC).
Earlier this year, senior government officials warned of a “black campaign” to stoke sectarianism in Indonesia’s most populous province, West Java, amid a spate of mysterious attacks on clerics, mosques and schools.
The incidents were inflamed by a co-ordinated social media campaign depicting Islam as under attack and blaming the moderate President Joko Widodo and his political allies.
Ridwan Kamil, a moderate Muslim and U.S.-trained architect perceived as sympathetic to Widodo, said in a interview ahead of the polls that rivals had accused him of not being “Islamic enough”. He still prevailed in the contest for West Java governor according to quick counts, albeit by a slender margin.