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Jakarta elections mark Indonesia’s increasingly conservative turn

The overwhelming defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama as Jakarta’s governor has marked the most divisive and religiously focused major election in Indonesia’s post-Suharto period. The election was marked by sectarian protests and has resulted in a strong win by former Education and Culture Minister Anies Baswedan.
Purnama – better known as ‘Ahok’ – a Christian of ethnic Chinese descent, inherited Jakarta’s governorship when former governor Jokowi Widodo (‘Jokowi’) stepped down to run for Indonesia’s presidency. While having been an efficient city governor, the anti-Ahok campaign against him was based on him not being Muslim.
This campaign turned particularly nasty last December when Ahok was charged with blasphemy. The charge followed Ahok’s reply to opponents citing the Holy Qur’an against him, in which he said that voters should not allow themselves to be duped by religious leaders. An version of Ahok’s speech posted on-line, with some words removed, implied that the Qur’anic verse Al-Maidah 51 (Muslims should not take Christians or Jews as ‘allies’) was misleading, rather than the people citing it.
Indonesia has an historical anti-Chinese undercurrent with anti-Chinese legislation, though now largely repealed, and anti-Chinese riots as recently as the late 1990s. In March 2016, Indonesian Army General Surya Prabowo said that Ahok should ‘know his place lest the Indonesian Chinese face the consequences of his action’, hinting at the 1990s anti-Chinese riots.
As well as having a racist and sectarian element, the Jakarta election also marked the larger divide in Indonesian politics. Anies Baswedan is supported by presidential candidate, former hard-line general and President Suharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto. Ahok was deputy to Predsident Jokowi when he was Jakarta governor.
The conservative ‘strong-man’ Prabowo ran a disciplined campaign against the populist Jokowi in Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election. With Ahok facing legal as well as political difficulty, President Jokowi abandoned his former political ally. Since his election in 2014, Jokowi has been a weak president and, although having a working relationship with Prabowo to ensure the smooth running of the legislature, remains vulnerable to his future challenge.
Supported by the militant Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which staged violent protests against Ahok’s governorship, Purnama’s win is likely to herald social changes to Jakarta. It is unlikely that Purnama will be able to impose full Islamic law (shariah), which exists in the province of Aceh and some other municipalities. However, it is likely that some aspects of shariah could be introduced, including restrictions on women traveling alone after dark.
What the election also marks is the growth of a more fundamentalist Islam in Indonesia. Indonesia has been widely known for its tolerant Islam, referring primarily to the nominal ‘abangan’ Muslims of Central and East Java.
Since the 1990s, however, a more observant, less tolerant version of Islam has been growing, in part due to fundamentalist Saudi funding of Indonesian schools and mosques, in part in response to perceptions of a growing Islam-secular West divide and, in part, reflecting the global trend towards populist conservativism.
With Ahok representing an unpopular minority, Purnama’s double digit victory does need to be read with some caution. But there is no doubt that a more radical Islamist agenda will be emboldened by Purnama’s overtly Islamic campaign.
With Indonesia’s wider shift towards a more observant form of Islam and the apparent failure of President Jokowi’s ‘soft’ populism, the Jakarta elections indicate that the way is being paved for Indonesia to return to a more conservative, hard-line political agenda that is increasingly aligned with less tolerant forms of Islam.