Politics in Indonesia: Why is the Jakarta Election Important?
Jakarta's gubernatorial election is important for two reasons: (1) it is an important test case to determine the current state of religious and ethnic tolerance (pluralism) within Indonesia, and (2) it forms a prelude to Indonesia's 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Today, the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election is held, a tight race between incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) and former education minister Anies Baswedan.
Test Case for Indonesia's Religious and Ethnic Tolerance
While Indonesia's national motto is "unity in diversity" (Bhineka Tunggal Ika) the hardline Islamic community within Indonesia (a minority within the population) does not embrace this motto, or, they only embrace it as long as the motto works in their favor. However, when a non-Muslim of Chinese descent desires a leading role (such as the position of Jakarta governor), there emerges fierce opposition from this hardline Islamic group. This happened the Jakarta election. Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent, met fierce opposition as seeks to be selected new Jakarta governor.
We believe that the group of hardline Muslims in Indonesia is rather small. For example, when hardliners staged various big demonstrations in Jakarta over the past couple of months, the protestors numbered "only" a couple of hundred of thousands of people. Compared to the total population in Jakarta and neighboring regions, this forms a small percentage. We define hardline Muslims as those Muslims who openly - or secretly - support terrorist acts or other violent acts (for example attacks on bars and supermarkets that sell alcohol during Islam's holy Ramadan month), or more generally, those who prioritize the content of the Al Q'uran (or conservative Muslim tradition) over the content of existing national (secular) laws.
The exact extent of these hardline Muslims' influence on the "cultural Muslim" (or nominal Muslim) is unknown but surely there is influence. Over the past couple of months there have been many banners (often removed by authorities) across Jakarta, especially at mosques, stating "a true Muslim is not allowed to vote for a non-Muslim leader". Moreover, there is Ahok's blasphemy case. This case started when a manipulated video surfaced on social media in late-2016 that showed Ahok criticizing a specific verse in the Al Q'uran. The person who uploaded this video most likely did it with the intention to damage Ahok's name ahead of the Jakarta gubernatorial election. But although it involves a manipulated video prosecutors did not dare to dismiss the case as hardline Muslims staged big demonstration in Jakarta to put pressure on Indonesian authorities. As such, this case proves the influence of the hardline Muslims on society and on a court case. We assume that without the ongoing blasphemy trial, it would have been easier for Ahok to compete for the number one position in Indonesia's capital city.
Voting for Ahok seemingly does not come without threats or consequences. For example, a recent Facebook post (by a hardline Muslim) said it is allowed by Islamic law to "gang rape women who support Ahok". According to the Jakarta Globe, members of the Indonesian Women Against Violence reported this social media user to local police. Meanwhile, a researcher at Indonesian think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies said a Muslim grandmother who voted for Ahok in the first round (15 February 2017) was denied her Muslim funeral rights after she died of natural causes. Hardliners also said they would deploy 100 people at each Jakarta polling station to monitor the election in the second round. This statement has an intimidating effect, even though Indonesian police said it will act against any mobilization of masses during Jakarta's voting day. Reportedly, authorities will deploy 66,000 police and military personnel to safeguard public order.
All in all, there are pressures on the nominal Muslim (as well as on the non-Muslim) in this election.
On the other hand, it is not fair - in case of a Baswedan victory - to blame it solely on ethnic and religious intolerance. Ahok, during his time as Jakarta governor (being deputy he replaced Widodo when the latter became Indonesian president in 2014), made enemies due to his blunt speech and swift actions. While Javanese politicians naturally have soft-spoken personalities, Ahok's style of speech is much less diplomatic. In fact, it can be labelled brash and blunt. This explains why some find him arrogant.
Read more: Politics Indonesia: Update 2nd Round Jakarta Gubernatorial Election
Besides his personality, his swift actions have also created enemies. Ahok is different from the "common Indonesian political leader" because he does not refrain from taking certain decisions that benefit the community at large but are very painful for a limited number of locals. For example, he evicted people living on the banks of the Ciliwung river in South Jakarta to make it possible to improve infrastructure (particularly to enhance flood prevention). However, these people feel betrayed, while Ahok's political opponents took the opportunity to accuse him of human rights violations. This group of poor and lower-class voters may actually tip the election, given there is a narrow margin between both candidates.
Prelude to Indonesia's 2019 Elections
The result of Jakarta's 2017 gubernatorial election is assumed to be of strategic importance for the nation's general 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. Jakarta is the center of national politics and the economy and therefore having an ally in Jakarta is a great asset for a president. President Widodo and Ahok are allies. They successfully run as a pair (with Ahok as deputy) for Jakarta governor in 2012.
After being inaugurated in 2014 President Widodo had the difficult task of securing majority support within Indonesia's parliament in order to rule efficiently. At that time most people in the House still supported defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, which was regarded a big threat to effective and efficient government policy-making. This changed after the Golkar party selected a new leader, one who was not attached to Prabowo. However, if Baswedan wins the Jakarta election then the influence of Subianto rises again (considering the latter endorses Baswedan).
There is still a possibility that Subianto will again run for presidency in the 2019 election, or there is the possibility - as we saw after 2012 - that Baswedan becomes popular as Jakarta governor that he can run in the 2019 presidential election. Subsequently, the influence of hardline Muslims is expected to be bigger in that election as these groups disapprove of Ahok-ally Widodo.
Read more: Overview of the Politics of Indonesia
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