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President Joko Widodo has taken an unconventional route to national office. Beawiharta Beawiharta/Reuters


The Conversation/Zenobia Ahmed, CC BY-SA

Jakarta’s gubernatorial election is by far the most significant political event of the year in Indonesia.

Not only is Jakarta Indonesia’s biggest and most important city, the election matters because of the part it plays in the country’s larger political process. A key reason is that, after the presidency, the governorship has the largest single constituency in the country. Crucially, the current president, Joko Widodo, showed how a politician from outside the traditional political elite could use the post as a stepping stone to national office.

The election reflects a number of key political forces at play in the country. On the one hand, it is a contest between the parties and factions that compete for influence on the national stage. But many also see it as a litmus test of Indonesia’s democratic system.

The incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, is a Christian who came into office following Widodo’s election. This is the first time he has faced election. In the build-up to the February ballot, Ahok has been subject to what many regard as a well-organised campaign to push him from office, based on concerns that he is not Muslim.

The governor is on trial for religious defamation, charges he claims are politically motivated. Even if he is elected, he may not be able to take office as he may be convicted.

Mass protests followed the allegation against Ahok last October, and there is widespread concern the election will bring social and religious divisions to the surface in the diverse nation.

The first round of elections was held on 15 February. Ahok looks to have secured the largest share of the vote, around 42%, but as he failed to achieve more than 50% of the vote, a run-off election will be required. Surprisingly, the second placed candidate was not Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of the former president but Anies Baswedan. The run-off election will be held on 19 April.

How the election plays out, the social tensions it reveals and the stresses it places on Indonesian democracy will have ramifications for years to come, most obviously in the 2019 presidential campaign.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the Southeast Asian club of states that has been central to Indonesia’s foreign policy. Under President Widodo, Indonesia has shown a greater level of ambivalence towards the institution than any previous administration. Indonesian leadership has been key to the grouping’s success and this year we will see whether or not Jakarta continues to drift away from ASEAN.

Finally, the year will be an important one in Indonesia-China relations. From tensions over the South China Sea to growing resentment toward Chinese investment in the country, Indonesia has increasingly strained ties with China. Many will be watching to see which way the relationship turns this year.

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