Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama and Djarot Saiful Hidayat suffered a major defeat in the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election on 19 April. Photo by Hafidz Mubarak A for Antara.


The decisive defeat of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta’s litmus-test gubernatorial election is a triumph for hard-line Islamist agitators. It comes after years of pressure from the Muslim right and may flag a shift in Indonesian politics that will not help Indonesia’s fraying reputation for religious pluralism and tolerance.  


The key to understanding why this election matters so much is that Ahok represents a double minority. He is a Christian in a city that, like Indonesia as a whole, is close to 90 per cent Muslim. He is also an ethnic Chinese, a minority who have been the target of racial discrimination in Indonesia for centuries.


For all its governance problems, Indonesia is now a genuine electoral democracy. For decades it has advertised itself to the world as a model of the compatibility of Islam and democracy – and of the religious and ethnic pluralism embodied in its national motto “Unity in Diversity”.


But the bitter election campaign that resulted in Ahok’s defeat gives the lie to these claims. It has been conducted in an increasingly tense atmosphere of religious and racial discrimination and rising intolerance that has seen him charged with blasphemy, and five of the Islamist hard-liners who led massive protests against him charged with treason.


Ahok had been elected deputy to Governor Joko Widodo five years ago, and stepped into his boss’s shoes three years ago when Jokowi resigned in 2014 for his successful tilt at the presidency. Ahok has run Jakarta, a vast megacity of about 20 million, effectively, if uncompromisingly, since then. His enemies in the Islamist right, however, have consistently objected to him, from the moment the joint gubernatorial ticket with Jokowi was announced in 2012. They have been trying since then to tear him down.


Their chance came in September last year. The blasphemy charges against him relate to an incident while he was campaigning then. He referred to a particular verse of the Qur’an (Al Ma’idah) that many Indonesian Muslim leaders interpret as prohibiting the rule of non-Muslims over Muslims, and which Islamists had used against Ahok since he began his run for the deputy’s position. There are different interpretations of this particular verse elsewhere in the Muslim world but this definition has traction in Indonesia.


During a typically unguarded speech, Ahok told his audience that they were being fooled by religious leaders (ulama) who used this interpretation of the verse against him. A version of his comments ended up in the media, wrongly edited to make it seem that he said “You are being fooled by the Qur’an”.


Huge street demonstrations followed, led by hard-line Islamists, including the notorious FPI (Islamic Defenders Front), and FUI (Islamic Community Forum). Over half a million people protested against Ahok at one point late last year, egged on by the inflammatory rhetoric of Islamist firebrands like FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab. He even called for a march on the Presidential Palace and the overthrow of the government. The resulting turmoil forced Jokowi to cancel his planned visit to Australia in November, at the last moment.


The scale of these protests was frightening for many ordinary Jakartans who remember the riots and violence of 1998, when President Soeharto lost power. Politicians were also concerned to see such huge mobs on the streets – a longstanding nightmare for anyone in power in this gigantic and sometimes volatile city. And so the decision was taken by President Jokowi to let his former deputy and close advisor, Ahok, face the blasphemy charges, as a way of calming the situation.


The charges undoubtedly did huge damage to Ahok’s campaign. Polls run before the election found that although 70 per cent of Jakartans felt he had been an effective governor only about 40 per cent of them were prepared to actually vote for him.


But it is not just Ahok’s religion that has attracted such vicious opposition. Although some ethnic Chinese have served in appointed positions, including in cabinet, none have even been elected to high office in Indonesia. This made Ahok a lightning rod for racist attacks.


Although most of the attacks on him are framed in religious terms, they are also driven by his ethnicity. There must be doubt about whether his enemies could have brought hundreds of thousands out on the streets as they did twice last year if Ahok was not an ethnic Chinese. After all, Jakarta has had another (appointed) Christian governor in the past, but he is the first Chinese one. A recent survey disaggregating Ahok’s religion from his ethnicity, shows that many Indonesians seem more negative about his ethnic identity than his religious one.


The fact the hard-line leaders – some of them little more than gangsters – were able to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, sometimes openly attacking the government and the president, and got what they wanted has upset the patterns of politics in Jakarta – nationally too, because the capital is this gigantic nation’s commercial, social and political hub. Many politicians became uneasy with what had been unleashed; others have begun to think about how they can benefit from playing the Islamist card.


Take Ahok’s victorious opponent, Anies Baswedan. He has been the national education and culture minister, a Fullbright scholar and the rector of Paramadina University, a respected moderate centre of Islamic higher education. He has long enjoyed a reputation as a progressive Muslim intellectual. He refrained from identity-based invective but ran an effective dog-whistle campaign, courting the Islamist groups that were attacking Ahok on religious and racial grounds, attending their meetings and even singing with them. Politicians all around Indonesia will be closely studying his success in elections that are seen by many as a rehearsal for the 2019 presidential and legislative races. It will not go unnoticed that Anies’ party leader is Jokowi’s defeated presidential rival, former general Prabowo Subianto.


Jokowi’s government is a weak and insecure one and it seems confused about how to deal with hard-line Islamist groups. Does it pander to them? Or does it push back? It sometimes seems to be trying to do both at the same time. In the end, the government responded by arresting some of the hard-line leaders and charging them with treason. But the move came very late and Jokowi has been very careful to distance himself from Ahok, seeming willing to throw his friend “under the bus” to secure his own authority.


Make no mistake, it was the mobilisation of racial and religious hatred achieved by his enemies that led to Ahok’s defeat in this election, and his performance as acting governor was largely immaterial. He now faces judgment in his blasphemy trial and the possibility of years in prison. The election has polarised Indonesia, intimidated religious and racial minorities and greatly strengthened the hand of Islamist hardliners.


Without Ahok no longer at the helm, life will, of course, go on in Indonesia’s huge, dysfunctional capital, but these events have shaken the country’s self-identity as a tolerant, pluralist society and bode ill for the future.


This piece was also published on John Menadue’s blog.


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