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Race and religion to continue influencing Jakarta election: Teneo

Supporters of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, take a selfie with a cardboard cutout during the voting on February 15, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Oscar Siagian | Getty Images
Supporters of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, take a selfie with a cardboard cutout during the voting on February 15, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Race and religion will continue to influence regional elections in Jakarta despite the Indonesian capital's incumbent Christian Chinese governor narrow lead in the first round of polls, an analyst said.

Incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was the first round front-runner with 43.08 percent of the vote, according to polling firm SMRC. Former education minister Anies Baswedan took second place with 40.14 percent while Agus Yudhoyono, the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took just 16.78 percent of the vote.

A run-off election between Ahok and Baswedan is scheduled to take place in April.

"I think the surprise was that Ahok performed better than expected. Polls a fews weeks ago were painting him around 30, 35 percent," Roberto Herrera-Lim, Southeast Asia managing director at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC's "The Rundown."

"It shows that although tensions have been inflamed by the rallies, by the anti-Christian (and) anti-Chinese sentiment, they've toned down a bit since then," he added.

Ahok is currently on trial for blasphemy after referencing a verse from the Koran while on the campaign trail.

While some experts say that the public is increasingly viewing the blasphemy charge as political in nature, others say that religion continues to play a part in the public sphere in secular Indonesia.

"Some Indonesians say they must have a Muslim, they must have an ethnic Indonesian as governor of Jakarta. That's going to inform a lot of votes still," Herrera-Lim said.

The challenge for Ahok and President Joko Widodo, whose political party the PDI-P has backed the Jakarta Governor for re-election, is to convince the electorate to make their decisions based on "merit" instead of race or religion, Herrera-Lim added.

Despite the massive protests that converged on central Jakarta last December over Ahok's blasphemy trial, Herrera-Lim said that it remained too early to draw broader conclusions over whether Indonesia has become more or less religiously conservative.

"Ahok is what we call a double minority in terms of ethnicity and religion so it triggered passions about this … It's just a circumstance of having one really high-profile target and people who were on the extremes targeted him for that," Herrera-Lim said.

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