Contentious Jakarta Election Finally Called for Challenger

After a racially and religiously-charged election that resulted in a runoff, Jakarta finally has a new governor and Indonesia is facing the reality that political Islam has entered the public discourse in a way unprecedented in modern Indonesian politics.

Anies Baswedan, a university rector and former minister of education and culture, handily beat Chinese-Christian Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who became acting governor after his boss, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, won the 2014 presidential election.

Ahok was widely popular until September 2016, when he quoted the Quran at a campaign speech in the Thousand Islands fishing region, and Islamist hardliners seized upon a video clip of it to charge him with blasphemy. The formerly fringe group known as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) organized two enormous protests in Jakarta, where they called for Ahok to be jailed and even killed.

Those demonstrations pushed the national police to charge him with blasphemy in November, which means he was on trial while campaigning for re-election.

The case would have created a political quandary had Ahok won the race; could he, for instance, govern from jail? That’s no longer in question, but the final verdict won’t be delivered for another few weeks.

Judges are expected to show leniency given his loss, and this week, the prosecution floated a light sentence of two years probation, without jail time. The FPI, however, is still lobbying for the maximum sentence of five years in jail.

Political Islam normalized

Although 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, its government is formally secular and its constitution protects six religions, giving no special status to Islam (as in neighboring Malaysia).

Baswedan, formerly known as a centrist moderate, allied with the FPI and religious hardliners throughout his campaign. When Baswedan won on Wednesday, he explicitly praised Islamic clerics (ulama) and teachers (kyai), and his campaign leader, Mardani Ali Sera, praised FPI and its incendiary leader, Habib Rizieq, as important “pillars of this victory.”

“People were intimidated [throughout this campaign] with propaganda of ‘Bela Islam,’ ‘Hell vs. Heaven’, and ‘Us vs Them,’” said Alissa Wahid, a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim organization. “And threats of becoming outcasts in their immediate kampung,” or neighborhood, said Wahid. “Muslims who voted for Ahok felt they would attract social stigma.”

Wahid said this was a bad omen for the 2019 presidential election, when Jokowi will run for re-election. Ahok’s loss is seen as a hit for Jokowi, as the pair led Jakarta together and remain close. Baswedan’s victory is also being celebrated by Jokowi’s 2014 presidential opponent, Prabowo Subianto.

Recent links have emerged about a loose coalition of anti-Ahok and anti-Jokowi forces, including Prabowo; Fadli Zon, vice speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives; billionaire Hary Tanoe; and the Indonesian military.


Unique candidate


That said, Ahok’s loss did not merely fall along sectarian lines. Plenty of Jakartans had grievances with Ahok’s pugnacious governing style, like the thousands of poor people who were evicted from their homes to make room for redevelopment. These citizens, from seaside neighborhoods like Pasar Ikan and Luar Batang, enthusiastically joined the FPI rallies last fall and fervently campaigned against Ahok in recent months.

In Rumah Susun, a low-income apartment where Ahok forcibly relocated hundreds of poor East Jakarta residents, Baswedan won 93 percent of the vote.

Political analyst Philips J. Vermonte, writing in the Jakarta Post, also explained how Ahok’s electability was never secure even before the blasphemy case, because his favorability rating never rose above 50 percent, even as his performance ratings were high.

And although racism became regrettably and unprecedentedly public this year, anti-Chinese sentiment is not new in Indonesia. Even during Jokowi’s gubernatorial campaign, groups like FPI made racially charged attacks on Ahok.

The difference is that they didn’t stick at the time, but perhaps that’s because their ticket was headlined by a Javanese Muslim. Ahok has never faced a true election in Jakarta — he comes from the small province of Bangka-Belitung — and he likely always faced steep odds.

Ian Wilson, a Murdoch University researcher who has worked extensively on urban poverty in Jakarta, thinks both candidates ignored economic inequality, which left the field open for sectarian baiting.

“Despite the seeming differences between the Ahok and Anies camps, reproduced over and over in commentary as one between ‘pluralism’ vs ‘sectarianism,’ the coalitions surrounding each of the two candidates consists of the one percent; some of the richest people in the country, all of whom have benefited significantly from the same economic conditions that have left millions of Indonesians in or near poverty,” Wilson told VOA.

That is to say, in Indonesia, like many other places in the world, economic populism is enmeshed with resurgent identity politics. Jakarta just joined the list of regions wracked by exhausting elections, whose winners have a rather long road ahead.

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