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Jakarta governor’s race a litmus test for Indonesia

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election may be one of the most important local elections in Indonesia so far. EPA/Adi Weda

Jakarta governor’s race a litmus test for Indonesia

Yesterday, Jakartans went to the polling stations to choose between a Chinese-Indonesian incumbent accused of blasphemy by conservative Muslims, a former president’s son, and a former education minister as the next governor of Indonesia’s capital.

Incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama leads the race with 42.87% of votes, followed by former minister Anies Baswedan with 39.76%, according to a quick sample count of votes by Kompas daily’s research and development team. The election commission’s deadline to tally the votes is February 27. The commission is expected to announce the result by March 4. Based on pollsters’ quick count results, the election seems set to head for a second round in April.

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election may be one of the most important local elections in Indonesia’s history.

This election will influence whether reforms to transform Indonesia’s politics from an oligarchic system to a stronger democracy prevail. It will also determine the future path of Indonesian political trajectory in its relation between religion and the State.

A stepping stone

The Jakarta governor seat is coveted for its heightened political implication. Since president Joko Widodo won 2014 presidential election after his two-year stint as Jakarta governor, observers and individual politicians perceive the position as a stepping stone to the presidency.

It wasn’t always the way. Before 2012, individual politicians viewed the Jakarta governor post primarily as an administrative position. But, political parties covet it for its enormous budget. Jakarta’s projected annual budget this year is approximately Rp 62 trillion (or US$4.6 billion). The governor controls local state owned businesses (BUMD) worth Rp 82 trillion (or US$ 6.1 billion) in total assets in 2015.

Now, after Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, won the presidency, the race for the Jakarta governor’s post gives nation-wide exposure for every candidate. It also draws international attention.

It is now seen not only as a source of funding for political parties, but also a strategic position for a political career.

Jakarta governor candidate former education minister Anies Baswedan (right) and his running mate businessman Sandiaga Uno. Reuters/Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa

Economic motives

But that’s not the main reason this election is so important.

The Jakarta election has been marked by a strong resistance against the Christian Purnama, Jokowi’s former deputy who replaced him as governor. Popularly known as Ahok, he is backed by the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jokowi’s ruling party.

Ahok is currently on trial for religious blasphemy after criticising his opponents for using Koran verses to warn against voting for him. In November and December, Jakarta saw large rallies demanding his imprisonment.

The resistance to Ahok’s nomination is greater than the political interests of his opponents.

The major players who were involved in building a narrative against Ahok and mobilising the masses are those whose resources had been cut off by the “new wave politicians”, spearheaded by President Joko Widodo.

These politicians, including Ahok, Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, and Surabaya mayor Tri Rismaharini, who come from outside of the political cartel, are pushing for reforms, cutting off lucrative resources to political-religious actors.

In November and December, Jakarta saw large rallies demanding imprisonment of Jakarta governer Basuki Tjahaya Purnama for alleged blasphemy. Reuters/Beawiharta

This certainly has stepped on many interests, including quasi-religious organisations such as Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Council of Indonesian Ulema (MUI). For instance, the Jokowi government has cut MUI’s monopoly for religious certifications.

Religion-State relations

Another key issue is the effect it would have on religion-state relations in Indonesia.

Ahok’s opponents’ camps have approached radical Muslim groups that organised rallies against Ahok.

A country of more than 400 ethnic groups, 700 languages, and six religions (that are officially acknowledged), Indonesia by nature and historical memory is open and pluralistic.

A Muslim majority, ethnic and religious issues in Indonesia have caused some tension. But never as volatile as that of the Middle East. Indonesia saw violent conflicts in Moluccas islands’ capital Ambon and in Poso, Central Sulawesi. But those were also against the characteristic of inter-ethnic and religious relations in Indonesia. Extremists from Java fuelled the conflict that lasted between 1999 and 2001.

In the past ten to 15 years, religious issues have become hot buttons. Indonesians have seen hardline Muslims, often with government support, attack the Ahmadiya and Shia Muslims, and shuttered churches in Indonesia.

Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, better known as Ahok. Reuters/Antara Foto/Hafidz Mubarak

Indonesia’s social fabric is mostly tolerant. The majority of the country’s different ethnic and religious groups have managed to live peacefully side by side. But the legal framework and politicians thrive on religious and ethnic conflicts.

A litmus test

The Jakarta election is a litmus test of the true feelings of Indonesians represented in Jakarta. Would religious and ethnic narratives be effective at swaying voters?

The result of this election will not necessarily answer whether Indonesian Muslims are tolerant or intolerant. But it will be a steep learning curve for politicians.

If religion and ethnic primordial lines make or break this election, politicians and Islamist groups will continue to destroy Indonesian pluralistic and tolerant Islam for political gains.