Religious Politics Victorious in Indonesia
Jakarta voters’ ouster of Christian governor an ominous message
Jakarta’s seven million voters on April 19 decisively traded gubernatorial competence for ethnic and religious hegemony, turning down the sprawling city’s successful governor, ethnic Chinese-Christian Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja, in a landslide in favor of Anies Baswedan, a former education minister supported by conservative Muslims.
A “quick count” showed Anies, backed by the powerful political machine of former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, had received about 58 percent of the vote to Ahok’s 42 percent. Although the official count won’t be known for weeks, in past elections the quick count has stood up as relatively accurate. Ahok, as the governor is universally known, quickly conceded. He would have been the city’s first elected Chinese Christian governor.
After what political scientists characterized as easily the bitterest race in the city’s history, Anies said after the first results came in that he would work to unite the divided electorate.
“We are committed to maintaining unity in Jakarta,” he said. “We want to celebrate pluralism and diversity.” He has vowed to upgrade the city’s shambolic squatter colonies rather than evicting their inhabitants, as Ahok has done.
If Anies’ win is an indication of a resurgence of Prabowo’s national influence, that resurgence appears to be built at least partly on a resort to religious intolerance. It also is a blow for President Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Jokowi used his own political muscle in a vain attempt to produce a win for Ahok, who had been deputy governor when he as Jakarta governor from 2012 to 2014 and started the reform of the city. Ahok inherited the job and if anything deepened the commitment to reform.
The decisive drubbing of a non-Muslim also raises troubling questions for future races in a country that historically has steered clear electorally of radical religious practice despite the fact that it is about 85 percent Sunni Muslim, with about a million Shias, who are increasingly persecuted along with Ahmadis, another Muslim sect. In recent years, there has been an ominous and growing trend towards religiosity that was also absent in the presidential race of 2014 when Jokowi and Prabowo collided and Jokowi won.
This election, for instance, was all about religion and race despite the fact that Ahok is clearly the most effective official to govern Jakarta in decades. He has moved to clean the capital’s noxious rivers and reduced flooding, begun to straighten out the chaotic transport system, evicted squatters from the riverbanks and run a largely corruption-free administration although he has come under fire for his sarcastic manner and frequent insults to constituents and employees.
However, the election hinged on allegations that Ahok, in a campaign speech last year, had made blasphemous remarks concerning the Quran when he said opponents would attempt to use a verse in the Muslim holy book to say voting for a non-Muslim would go against the religion.
He was said to have violated Surat Al-Ma’idah 51, the 51st verse of the Quran, which reads: “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
The result was a continuing uproar, with massive demonstrations against Ahok and an eventual charge of blasphemy in a Jakarta court, with the ruling stayed until after the election despite a tearful public apology from the 50-year-old official. The verse was posted in many mosques across the city and religious preachers exhorted the faithful to reject Ahok on the basis of religion.
On Thursday, Ahok returned to the North Jakarta District court, where he faced up to five years in prison for blasphemy. However, attorneys asked for a year in prison with two years of probation, which means, if granted, that Ahok would stay out of jail but must refrain from breaking the law.
The new governor is considered to be a liberal Muslim, but he embraced the FPI, or Islamic Defenders Front, a violence-prone gang of Islamist activists that he had once called a “radical group.” The FPI, which is sometimes believed to be an adjunct of the National Police, are noted for harassing women in short skirts and storming nightclubs and discotheques. Anies is also a former member of Jokowi’s cabinet, an academician and a onetime Fullbright Scholar. Considered a highly respected young leader, he was also the country’s youngest university president.
The influence of Prabowo is not to be discounted. Widodo’s rival in the 2014 presidential race, Prabowo is the former son-in-law of the late strongman Suharto and an enormously rich businessman. He has never been aligned with religious figures. But in rebuilding his political machine following the loss, he has since turned to the FPI and other Muslim groups.
With the election over, Prabowo and Aburizal Bakrie, another political figure who had been in eclipse after losing his position as head of Golkar, the country’s biggest and oldest political party, went to the Grand Mosque Istiqlal in central Jakarta to meet with the FPI and their allies. Prabowo expressed his gratitude to FPI leader Rizieq Syihab and National Movement to Safeguard Indonesian Ulema Council’s Edicts (GNPF MUI) chairman Bachtiar Nasir, saying that ulemas or religious councils had played an important role in the victory.
The next question is what becomes of Jakarta’s governing structure. For decades the conurbation of 30 million residents, the world’s second-biggest metropolitan area, was run by political hacks who allowed it to descend into urban sprawl and deep corruption until Jokowi, formerly a reform mayor of the city of Surakarta from 2005 to 2012, ran in Jakarta.