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Grounds of Islamic politics shifting rapidly in Jakarta

Incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (affectionately known as Ahok) suffered a crushing defeat in the Jakarta gubernatorial run-off election last week.

Jakarta's Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purname, also known as Ahok, arriving for his court hearing in Jakarta on April 20, 2017. Photo: AFP

Jakarta's Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purname, also known as Ahok, arriving for his court hearing in Jakarta on April 20, 2017. Photo: AFP

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Incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (affectionately known as Ahok) suffered a crushing defeat in the Jakarta gubernatorial run-off election last week.

While the formal result is still pending for another month, Purnama conceded defeat hours after a quick count at exit polls from various polling institutions showed that former education minister Anies Baswedan and entrepreneur running mate Sandiaga Uno had won a landslide victory after securing 58 per cent of the votes.

The result is a disappointing end for Purnama and his loyal supporters, in what has been one of the most controversial, widely covered, and agenda-defining elections in contemporary Indonesia.

An ethnic Chinese and Christian “double minority”, Purnama is a controversial political figure in the Muslim-majority country, where the ethnic Chinese have been subject to systemic discrimination since Dutch colonial times.

Furthermore, much of the Jakarta election was fought along religious lines, following the now infamous blasphemy allegation against Purnama that began in October last year and resulted in him facing a court trial.

Hardline Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) organised massive street protests and staged a very effective smear campaign based on the rhetoric that a vote for Purnama is a vote against Islam. While never directly attacking Purnama for blasphemy, his opponent, Mr Baswedan, who is backed by presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto, aligned himself with the hardliners in a move designed to appeal to conservative Muslim voters.

Purnama’s defeat showed that the strategy of stirring up religious — and to a lesser extent, racial — sentiments had worked.

Before the blasphemy allegation, Purnama was widely predicted to win, and his performance satisfaction rating was (and still is) consistently more than 70 per cent. Indeed, while many voters disliked Purnama’s brash mannerisms, in general, his policies and bureaucratic reforms were popular among Jakartans.

For a popular and effective incumbent governor to lose an election over religious issues is a big blow for the state of pluralism in Indonesia. Politically, Purnama’s defeat is a major blow for his close ally President Joko Widodo, who is a symbol for secular governance.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Purnama’s defeat was the large margin by which Mr Baswedan won. Most analysts had predicted a very tight race. Such a landslide victory for Mr Baswedan indicates that religion and race played a much more important role in determining voting behaviour than previously thought.

Purnama lost the election despite last-minute endorsements by moderate Islamic parties PKB (National Awakening Party) and PPP (United Development Party), as well as support from some influential moderate Muslim clerics. Furthermore, while it was expected that most Muslim voters who had previously voted for defeated first-round candidate Agus Yudhoyono would swing towards Mr Baswedan, it was thought that at least a proportion of moderate Muslims would rather vote for Purnama rather than align themselves with Islamic hardliners.

Purnama’s campaign had evidently failed to compete with the powerful divisive rhetoric spread by conservative Muslim factions that targeted Jakarta’s usually tolerant moderate Muslim population.

Indeed, it was very difficult for Purnama’s campaign team to convince undecided Muslim voters amid intimidating rhetoric such as one saying that voting for a non-Muslim blasphemer such as Purnama is an unforgivable sin. In another example, throughout the campaign season, rumours and reports emerged of mosques denying Islamic burial rites for known Purnama supporters.

The power of appealing to the emotions and fear of believers cannot be underestimated and, indeed, most of Jakarta’s Muslims — even those who harbour sympathies towards Purnama — ended up voting for Mr Baswedan.

Mr Baswedan’s victory also shows that the grounds of Islamic politics in the Indonesian capital are shifting rapidly. The hardliners’ successful politicisation of the blasphemy case showed that the core of conservative Islamist factions have become better organised, funded and politically connected, thus increasing their capacity to mobilise at key junctures, such as important elections.

Jakarta sets the trend for the rest of the nation, so this election sets an alarming precedent, particularly for the 2019 presidential election.

So, what next? Losing Purnama as a key ally in the nation’s capital is a substantial pushback for Mr Widodo, who faces much powerful opposition in his struggle for political dominance.

On the other hand, in successfully backing Mr Baswedan to Jakarta’s top office, Mr Subianto and his Gerindra party have increased their sphere of political influence in the capital. Indeed, recent polls revealed that Mr Subianto’s popularity ratings have received a significant boost in the wake of the Jakarta elections.

If he runs again for the presidency in 2019, as he is widely expected to do, Mr Subianto would arguably be an even more formidable candidate with the support of conservative Islamist factions.

It is also important to note that, in winning the Jakarta election, Mr Baswedan is now very well-placed to be a presidential candidate himself in 2019.

This prospect would undoubtedly put him in conflict with Mr Subianto, but Mr Baswedan has proven himself to be a very ambitious and able political operator. Mr Baswedan has become a key figure to watch in the coming months, and both Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto would be wrong to underestimate his potential as a challenger.

As for Purnama, prosecutors announced the day after the election that they only seek a one-year suspended sentence with a two-year probationary period, should he be found guilty of blasphemy.

This is some measure of relief for Purnama and his supporters, and already rumours are that Mr Widodo is likely to give him an important leadership role in the near future.

Losing the Jakarta governorship is definitely not the end of Purnama’s political career, especially now that he has become a symbol of hope for Indonesia’s liberal progressives.

What is certain is that Mr Widodo must now ready himself for religion and race to play a much more prominent role in future campaigns and political attacks.

Mr Subianto will undoubtedly try to use the Islamist momentum to his advantage, although this would be a very dangerous strategy.

Moving forward, all political players must take into serious consideration the increasing capacity and influence of sectarian Islamist groups at the national level.



Charlotte Setijadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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