Jakarta Election seen as ‘Battle for Country’s Soul’

This Wednesday, February 15, Indonesia holds simultaneous local elections involving 101 provinces, districts and municipalities throughout the archipelago. The polls are an important mid-term read on the nation’s mood under President Joko Widodo ahead of 2019 national elections, but the real battle is along the contentious religious lines in Jakarta’s governor’s election. Some are calling it a battle for the country’s soul.

The struggle pitting Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese Christian Governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, against two Muslim challengers has the incumbent embroiled in blasphemy charges while street protests call for his ouster because he is not Muslim.

In addition, the race is a behind-the-scenes confrontation between Islamic adherents apparently backed by the former Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose son, Agus Hartimurti Yudhoyono, is running against Ahok, and secularists led by Widodo. There is rising fear that the post-election period could be marred by violence as religious opposites clash. More than 30,000 military and police officers will be deployed during the election, a police spokesman said.

Ahok has been battered by blasphemy charges arising from his allegedly insulting the Quran by accusing opponents of using the Holy Book to call for his defeat. Ahok’s supporters say his words were distorted in a bid to appeal to Muslims. On trial for blasphemy currently, he has become a target of rising conservatism in Indonesia, whose Muslim population is the largest in the world.

Good record not the issue

Few argue that he has been ineffective as governor, with infrastructure projects dotting the city as never before and parks and services becoming commonplace after decades of do-nothing civic leadership, but the blunt 50-year-old Jakarta governor has also been criticized for using rude words on television, as well as browbeating common people and his political opponents.

Massive rallies against Ahok in November and December shook the national government, raising fears that unrest would spread. Police have since moved against organizers from the radical Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), but an openly political “prayer rally” on Saturday, February 12 still drew an estimated 100,000 people, despite police refusing to issue a permit to march. The protest was confined to the national mosque in central Jakarta.

The rallies have also attracted large crowds from provinces outside of Jakarta, which many political analysts regard as a Muslim political awakening, stoking fears of a looming struggle to move Indonesia toward being an Islamic republic. Palace insiders say Widodo takes the threat seriously and is furious that his political opponents – especially Yudhoyono – are using religion as a tool to go after Ahok, who succeeded to the governorship from the deputy post when Widodo ran for president in 2014.

Yudhoyono has denied funding the rallies and tearfully lamented the accusations against him.

The Saturday morning rally was called the “March to enforce Quranic verse Al Maidah 51,” the verse that Ahok is accused of criticizing. The rally and others have called for Ahok’s arrest.

In answer, forces apparently siding with the president have released recordings of sex chats between Habieb Rizieq, the FPI leader, and his alleged mistress, a politically wired woman. The lurid chats – and nude photos – have been a sensation but Habieb has also been named in several criminal cases.

“This is the counterattack in full swing. It is pretty impressive,” a source told Asia Sentinel. Aligned with Jokowi and the secularists are Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a powerful former general who is now Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs.

What is at stake?

“As a barometer of politics in Indonesia, of course Jakarta is getting all the attention, especially with Ahok running,” Siti Zuhro, a senior political researcher from the Indonesia Institute of Science (LIPI) told Asia Sentinel. “However, we need to highlight that Jakarta needs a fair and clean election, but it is more important that we need to get into the habit where the winner will respect the losers and those who lose will congratulate and support the winner. Ahok’s ethnic and religious backgrounds are important factors well played by his political opponents, but I think that he somewhat fuels these problems himself, because you can’t say it’s only a ‘slip of the tongue’ for statements he has clearly repeated.”

Many in Jakarta “keep saying that it’s okay as long as he does a good job as a governor, that it is his duty to give a good performance. If we compare him with other local leaders, we know that we have good leaders who are problem-free compared to Ahok,” Zuhro said, citing examples of local leaders from Surabaya and Banyuwangi in East Java and Bandung in West Java.

According to Pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia, the blasphemy controversy that began last year has significantly damaged Ahok's electability. The latest survey commissioned by the pollster found that 57 percent of respondents agreed he had committed blasphemy. He has tearfully denied it.

Only 27 percent of respondents disagreed with the accusation while the remaining 15-16 percent said they did not know the answer. The survey also showed most of the respondents who agreed that Ahok had committed blasphemy would vote for another candidate, Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who broke with Widodo after he was sacked.

However, the pollster said, Ahok remains the frontrunner because many voters are likely to vote for him on the basis of his record as governor, making government work after decades of chaos and corruption.

Another pollster, Charta Politika, conducted a survey showing that 39 percent of respondents said they would vote for Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat while 31.9 percent favor Anies, who is supported by former General and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The third ticket, headed by Agus and Sylviana Murni, came in last with 21.3 percent support.

Score card

The polls and conventional wisdom suggest that Ahok will win in the first round on Wednesday, but if he fails to secure more than 50 percent of the vote he will face a run-off against the No. 2 contender. It appears likely that the anti-Ahok vote will converge to give either Anies or Agus the edge in a runoff, likely in March.

Agus, SBY’s eldest son, gave up a promising military career ahead of the election, sparking wide criticism that the former president is seeking to perpetuate a political dynasty. But aside from a label as a green candidate, Agus is often criticized for his plan to give cash handouts of Rp1 billion (US$75,000) to each of the city's neighborhoods as a political ploy.

Prabowo surrogate Anies a strong Jokowi supporter in 2014, is also accused of political cynicism for joining the former general, whom Anies often openly criticized.

There are also fears the tight race may lead to vote-buying, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW). To prevent vote-buying, Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) officers are expected to pay special attention to slum and poor areas both before and on Election Day. Jakartans are also haunted by widespread rumors of an attempt to rig the election by using fake IDs.

“The government has to openly speak up against this issue and clear the problem once and for all, or we all will be the witness of legal problems after these elections,” said Siti Zuhro of LIPI.

Jakarta Police chief Insp. Gen. M. Iriawan on Saturday sent a strong message to those who would tamper with Jakarta's gubernatorial election and disrupt order. "No one should mess around with Jakarta, else they'll face me, the Jakarta military and all residents of the city," Iriawan said.

"Jakarta is a barometer for Indonesia. The government and residents of Jakarta want a safe, smooth and peaceful election," he added.