The long, divisive campaign for governorship of Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta is finally over, with unofficial results showing a decisive victory for the challenger Anies Baswedan over the controversial incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok).
The election was the most politically significant regional election in Indonesia’s history because it wasn’t just about choosing the chief executive for the city’s 10 million citizens.
Rather, it became a referendum on the future of Indonesia’s ethno-religious diversity and tolerance after unwanted intervention by a number of radical Islamist groups, most notably the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
The blasphemy campaign against Ahok
These groups accused Ahok, a Chinese Indonesian who is Christian, of blaspheming last September by mocking a Qur’anic verse that allegedly calls for Muslims to reject non-Muslims as their leaders. Ahok criticised unnamed religious clerics (ulama) for using verse 51 of the Surah Al-Maidah that advises Muslims to avoid aligning with Christian and Jews.
FPI and its allies managed to obtain a religious ruling (fatwa) from the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) declaring that Ahok was guilty of committing blasphemy against Islam. They then sponsored a number of anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta, the largest of which, held in November 2016, attracted approximately 2.5 million protesters.
Under pressure from these groups, the Indonesian government opened an investigation against Ahok and tried him for blasphemy. The trial was adjourned a week before the election.
Anies, a very astute politician, quickly capitalised on anti-Ahok accusations, by seeking and receiving an endorsement from Habib Rizieq Shihab, FPI’s supreme leader. He also started to portray himself as an “Islamic candidate” to win the support of Jakarta’s Muslims, who comprise 85% of registered voters.
The strategy seems to have worked, as an Indo Barometer poll in February indicated more than half of Jakarta’s voters would not vote for Ahok because they believed he had committed a blasphemous act against Islam.
They reached this conclusion despite a number of Islamic scholars saying that the Qur’anic verse in question must be seen in the context of warfare between Muslims and non-Muslims during the early Islamic period. And that it had nothing to do with how Muslims should choose their leader.
The race between the two contenders was very tight, as indicated by a reputable Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) poll, which showed Anies leading Ahok with a margin of 1% (47.9% vs 46.9%), with up to 5.2% of voters still undecided.
The campaign took an ugly turn when an elderly woman, who had voted for Ahok during the first round and subsequently died, was allegedly denied a Muslim burial. And an Islamist activist made a Facebook post stating it would be religiously permissible for any women voting for Ahok during the run-off election to be gang-raped.
Police had to tear down a number of banners placed in mosques across Jakarta discouraging their members to vote for Ahok during the runoff.
Implications of the election results
The election has serious implications for the future of Indonesian politics. Anies’ victory means he is in a stronger position to mount a challenge against President Joko Widodo in 2019, as a candidate of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), or with another opposition party.
A young, telegenic politician who has widely touted his Islamic credentials, Anies is perceived by Jokowi as a more formidable opponent than “old guard” elite figures, such as retired General Prabowo Subianto and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who are both widely expected to be contenders during the 2019 presidential election.
But more importantly, Anies’ victory is another sign of the growing Islamisation of Indonesian politics, which has been on the rise since the country made its democratic transition in 1998.
This phenomena can be seen throughout Indonesian society, from the promotion of Islamist prayer groups (pengajian) and study circles (halaqah) in public university campuses throughout the country; the proliferation of Indonesian women wearing Islamic veils (hijab); and the rapid increase in local regulations restricting alcohol consumption and the rights of religious minorities.
There seems to be an ideological and political convergence between Islamist groups such as FPI (an association of approximately 100,000 hardline Islamists with close ties to the Indonesian security apparatus) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. This latter is known for its advocacy for a global caliphate.
Members of both groups are developing a close relationship with the conservative elements of the Nahdlatul Ulama NU) and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organisations with generally moderate political leanings. They claim membership by 60 million and 30 million people respectively.
The MUI fatwa against Ahok was signed by Maaruf Amin, who, apart from being the council’s general chairman, is also NU’s supreme leader (rais aam).
The groups have also cooperated to demand the implementation of shari’a regulations (perda shari’a) by local governments throughout Indonesia. And there are now 442 such regulations in place in over 100 cities and districts.
These regulations require women to wear hijab in public, prohibit the consumption of alcohol and prostitution, and declare a number of Islamic minority sects, such as Ahmadis and Shiites, to be illegal within their respective localities. The groups have also encouraged acts of violence against both minorities over the past decade or so.
Rising Islamism and the renewed prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities pose a danger to the pluralist outlook enshrined in Indonesia’s official founding principles, which are collectively known as Pancasila. Made from the Sanskrit word for “five”, panca, and the Javanese for “principles”, sila, Pancasila states: “The one God system (monotheism), just and civilised humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice for all.”
These principles have underpinned equality for all Indonesia’s ethnic and religious groups since the country’s founding in 1945. Indonesian founding fathers who created Pancasila meant to give equal political and economic opportunities to all Indonesians irrespective of their ethnic and religious background.
Unlike Indonesia’s neighbour Malaysia, Pancasila grants no special status to Muslims and instead gives official religions status to a number of religions (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). It gives them equal legal recognition, and grants their members full religious freedom. Most significantly, adherents of all religions are free to run for and occupy any public office.
By creating these accusations against Ahok, the Islamists have refused to recognise the legal rights of Indonesia’s ethnic and religious minorities to run for public office. Ahok’s loss means that Indonesia’s ethno-religious diversity is the biggest casualty of this highly polarising election.