Prabowo Reappears as an Indonesian Political Force

It is a stunning indication of the cynicism of Indonesian religious and political practice that, a day after he was soundly defeated in his bid for reelection as Jakarta governor, blasphemy charges against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama were basically withdrawn by prosecutors -- reduced to a request for probation.

Charges that Ahok, as the governor is universally known, had blasphemed Islam were considered the biggest single reason for his defeat. They had dogged the 50-year-old Chinese Christian since last September, when he quoted a Quranic verse often used to urge Muslims to vote only for Muslim political candidates. A long series of rallies by thousands of outraged Muslims followed as Ahok’s political opponents capitalized on the situation.

The campaign was engineered by Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, Joko Widodo’s rival in the 2014 presidential race and the former son-in-law of the late strongman Suharto and an enormously rich businessman. The victory by Ahok’s opponent, Anies Baswedan, appears to vault Prabowo back to prominence and position him as the leading candidate against Jokowi, as the president is known, in the 2019 reelection campaign.

Having gone into temporary political eclipse following his defeat in 2014, Prabowo has indicated he is likely to run again, and that probably augurs considerable trouble for Jokowi’s ability to governor. With two years to go before the election, Gerindra, leading the opposition, is expected to seek ways to undermine Jokowi’s shaky coalition of political parties. There are already unfounded rumors circulating that Jokowi is a closet Christian himself.

Despite placing first in a Feb. 15 primary election, Ahok was soundly trounced by Jakarta’s seven million voters last April 19, voting 58 percent to 42 percent for his Muslim opponent, Anies Baswedan, in a race that revolved almost completely around the blasphemy charges despite the fact that Ahok by far has been the sprawling city’s most effective governor, cleaning its refuse-choked rivers, reducing flooding, beginning to straighten out the chaotic transport system, introducing a rational budgeting system and reforming the civil service.

On April 20 prosecutors acknowledged in the North Jakarta District Court that they couldn’t prove that the governor had insulted Islam as a whole but rather affronted Muslims as individuals, and said they would withdraw their accusation. They said Ahok had been cooperative during the legal process and that the con­tri­bu­tions he made to de­velop the cap­i­tal dur­ing his ser­vice as gov­er­nor were a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor.

“This trial, in the first place, should never have existed,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “It is very political, it was used to corner Ahok. Indonesia should scrap the blasphemy law, in fact Indonesia should release all people who are in prison for this … law.”

Ahok was charged with having 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 verse was posted in many mosques across the city and religious preachers exhorted the faithful to reject Ahok on the basis of religion. Some mosques said they wouldn’t extend Muslim burial services to those who supported the governor, who came to office in 2014 when he succeeded Joko Widodo, who used the office as a springboard to run successfully for the presidency.

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.

It remains to be seen whether Anies will continue an effective reign over Jakarta, which was a city in utter chaos prior to the ascendency of Jokowi as governor in 2012. Political figures, most of them from Golkar, the party put in place by Suharto, allowed it to deteriorate shockingly. Corruption was rife and the rivers were so choked with trash that it was possible to walk on them. The capital flooded annually, although it still does.

Hundreds of Ahok’s supporters showed up at the Jakarta City Hall on April 26 to express their gratitude for his reign, which actually won’t end until October, and he has vowed to continue his reform efforts until then. He has also publicly extended his cooperation to Anies.