Impact of Hardline Muslims on the Jakarta Gubernatorial Election

Last week incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known by his nickname Ahok) was defeated in the second and final round of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. Although his defeat is based on the unofficial quick count results (the official election result will be announced by the country's elections commission in May 2017), these quick count results are highly accurate (as we witnessed in previous elections). Moreover, they indicate a rather big margin between Ahok and (winner) Anies Baswedan.

However, religious (and to a lesser extent ethnic) sentiments played a big role in the Jakarta election. Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent, was first accused of blasphemy after an edited video (accompanied by a misleading text) surfaced on social media in late-2016. In this video Ahok is seen criticizing a specific verse in the Al Quran.

For hardline Muslims and Ahok's political opponents this edited video was a great excuse to try to topple Ahok. Various massive demonstrations were organized on the streets of Jakarta where protestors urged the government to arrest Ahok. After initially being hesitant, Indonesian prosecutors finally decided to trial Ahok for his alleged blasphemous words. It is widely assumed that prosecutors' decision to go-ahead with the case was because of pressures stemming from the massive demonstrations. If so, it is very alarming (and very undemocratic) that a hardline Muslim minority can influence such decisions.

Another example of prosecution's fear of the hardline Islamists is that it decided to announce its charge against Ahok one day after the final election round. Unsurprisingly, prosecutors' charges were very light. In fact, it reduced the blasphemy charge from Article 156a of the Criminal Code to Article 156. This was done because prosecution cannot show any evidence of blasphemy considering Ahok's words involved criticism directed at people, not the Al Quran. Hence, Ahok can only be charged with publicly expressing feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against one or more groups within the Indonesian population.

The prosecution obviously already came to this conclusion before the election. However, it did not dare to reveal its charges against Ahok prior to the election as this would be met by fierce criticism from hardline Muslims. When Ahok was defeated in the election it made matters less risky for prosecution and therefore it could charge a light sentence (two years probation, and one year in prison if Ahok abuses the probation order). It is not unlikely that prosecution would have ventilated a tougher charge against Ahok in case he would have won the Jakarta election in a bid to reduce criticism from hardline Muslims (implying it would then have simply shifted the responsibility to uphold democratic values to the judges).

These events are alarming and very undemocratic as a minority (by using the threat of violence) can influence the decision of prosecution and, indirectly, influence politics. Prior to the blasphemy case Ahok was comfortably leading most opinion polls and popularity surveys. His ratings fell, however, after the blasphemy allegations when hardline Muslims organized massive demonstrations on the streets of Jakarta between November 2016 and March 2017.

And the Winner Is Anies Baswedan..., or Not?

Indonesian former education minister Anies Baswedan won the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. However, who was first to give the victory speech? It was Gerindra Chairman Prabowo Subianto, who backed Baswedan in the election. Subianto is a controversial former army general (and son-in-law to Suharto) who was accused of human rights abuses, had to leave the country after Suharto stepped down and moved to Jordan. After returning to Indonesia in the 2000s Subianto has been gradually and successfully gaining influence in national politics. His Gerindra party did well in the 2014 parliamentary election and he was only narrowly defeated by Joko Widodo in the 2014 presidential election.

But the victory speech on Wednesday (19/04) showed that Baswedan is simply Subianto's puppet. The strong man behind Baswedan is Subianto, accompanied by several other (financially) strong men such as Subianto's brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Aburizal Bakrie, and Hary Tanoesoedibjo, a billionaires club (all linked to Suharto's New Order regime) that is hungry for political power. Indonesian politics is not about visionary inventors. The traditional oligarchic power structure (in which business empires and closeness to the political top and army are blended) is still powerful today (this also explains why Joko Widodo met fierce resistance at the top level being the first Indonesian president who does not originate from the country's traditional oligarchic elite).

Two Forces Join Hands ahead of the 2019 Elections

Two forces - (1) hardline Muslims and (2) the group around Subianto - have one ambition in common. Both want to topple the central government. However, each have different motives. While the hardline Muslims are purely motivated by religious sentiments and regard the Joko Widodo administration too secular, the group around Subianto is purely interested in political (and economic) power.

For the moment these two forces can go hand-in-hand in their pursuit to topple the government. Last week, after the second round of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, we saw Subianto expressing his gratitude to hardline Islamic Defenders Front (in Indonesian: Front Pembela Islam, FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab for "saving Indonesia's democracy". The FPI is one of the leading radical Muslim organizations in Indonesia that frequently uses violence - or the threat of violence - to force its will upon society (for example FPI members often raid bars and shops that sell food at daytime during the holy fasting month).

The FPI was also one of the leading hardline organizations that organized the massive protests in Jakarta that were aimed against incumbent Jakarta Governor Ahok as well as the government. On social media it is often suggested that the organization of such huge demonstrations actually requires a lot of money (as protesters are often rewarded with money or food and drinks). It is not too far-flung to see here the connection to the billionaires club around Subianto.

However, the question is, do both forces, fundamentally, share the same ambition and vision? The answer is no. For example, there are plenty of Christian influences in the group around Subianto. Not the least Subianto himself whose mother was Christian, and who allegedly converted to Islam to pursue a career in the army as well as to marry Suharto's daughter Titiek. His younger brother - entrepreneur Hashim Djojohadikusumo - remains Christian to the present day (contrary to the situation in the army and politics, religion is not a big obstacle if one pursues a career in business in Indonesia). Media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo is also Christian. Thus, we can assume that the Subianto group that supported Baswedan in the Jakarta election surely rejects a stronger role of hardline Islam in Indonesian politics and is merely using the country's hardline Muslim organizations to gather support ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

On the one hand, this assumption may ease some worries. For example, if Subianto manages to win the 2019 elections we will most likely not see the implementation of Islamic sharia law in Indonesia (something that is desired by hardline Muslims). We expect Subianto would like to use the New Order approach by giving some (limited) room to hardliners but only with the aim to control and monitor them. On the other hand, there emerge concerns that by using hardline Muslims in his quest to seek the highest political power in Indonesia, Subianto may create a "monster" that becomes too big to handle after 2019.

For the Joko Widodo administration it is now key to work hard to deliver on its economic and social development commitments. Widodo enjoys widespread popularity across Indonesia and therefore re-election in 2019 should be a relatively easy matter provided his cabinet manages to push economic acceleration to a higher level, create plenty of new jobs, and - perhaps most importantly - will not become involved in various corruption scandals (this is what happened to former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's second cabinet and seriously weakened political support for "SBY" and his political party).

Considering Widodo is a Javanese Muslim, his political opponents can not play the "religion card" or "racial card" as they did in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. Therefore, approaching the 2019 elections, his opponents will need to use different tactics. For example, they may start accusing Widodo (or his family) of being communist in an attempt to damage his name. But surely, for the next two years, we expect Subianto - in his quest to gain power - to continue being close to hardline Muslims and, most likely, he will also appeal to nationalist sentiments by vowing a more protectionist approach (similar to Donald Trump's successful run) compared to Widodo's policies (who recently opened room for foreign direct investment in Indonesia).


Misja Alexander |

Not only prabowo, behind all political leaders in Indonesia (also on the village level) there are wealthy businessmen who want to have more political power to benefit their businesses. Also jokowi needs backing by the "traditional elite" (which is the Soekarno family).