Jakarta poll stirs fires of racism

Florence Chong's picture

THE  Jakarta election is a precursor to how race and religion may play a role in Indonesia's upcoming 2019 Presidential election . . .

THE defeat of Basuki Tjajaja Purnama (Ahok) as Governor of Jakarta could have wider implications for Indonesia - beyond the politics of the capital itself.

Victory went to former Education Minister, Anies Baswedan, and his running mate, businessman Sandiaga Uno, on their pro-Islamic platform.

Ahok’s loss could affect the sometimes tenuous hold of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) on the country’s Presidency, because it will embolden his opponents in coming months.

The Jakarta election is a precursor to how race and religion may play a role in the upcoming 2019 Presidential election.

More immediately, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia are alarmed by the anti-Chinese sentiment whipped up during the campaign by pro-Islamic politicians. The likely fallout is a concern.

Ahok’s defeat reveals a deep fissure in Indonesian politics, according to Charlotte Setijad, Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Writing in the latest issue of Perspective, published by ISEAS, Setijadi says it cannot be denied that the political and societal commotion surrounding the Jakarta election has revealed the deep rifts that exist in society, as well as the shifting ground of Islamist politics in Indonesia.

“These have important implications for national politics and the 2019 Presidential election,” she wrote, before the results of the election was known. 

“Not having Ahok as an ally at the leadership of the capital city would weaken the President’s hold on power. This is particularly true in the context of the struggle for dominance between elite players Jokowi-Megawati, Prabowo Subianto and SBY.

She says that for now, however, SBY - at least for the time being - is largely out of the picture with the defeat of his son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, who was running with Sylviana Murni, a bureaucrat.

Agus’ defeat comes as a big blow to SBY. He had invested a significant amount of resources and political clout in his son, who quit a promising military career to run in the Jakarta gubernatorial race.
The competition between Presidential hopeful Prabowo and incumbent Jokowi is now expected to intensify, according to Setijadi, who argues that Anies’ victory would strengthen backer Prabowo’s sphere of influence in the capital. This could be harmful for Jokowi in the lead-up to 2019.

“Megawati clearly understands the importance of Jakarta as a battleground, with a PDI-P MP telling this author that Megawati has instructed all PDI-P cadres to concentrate their efforts on winning the Jakarta election,” Setijad writes.

“Furthermore, attacks against Ahok must also be understood as a concerted push against a more progressive style of leadership (represented by Jokowi nationally and Ahok in Jakarta) that emphasises secularism, good governance, and transparency

“This style of reform has caused unease among groups that previously had easy access to resources from dubious patron-client relationships.”

“More importantly, what recent events in Jakarta tell us is that the Islamist landscape is changing. Hardliner groups like the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) are using the momentum against progressive politics to drive Indonesia’s political Islam away from the moderate and mostly pluralist branches of Islam, represented by groups such as Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.

 “Slowly overtaken by conservative factions like the Indonesian Council of Ulamas (MUI) and FPI, NU and Muhammadiyah no longer dominate the agenda for the mobilisation of Muslims.”

This will be something that not only Jakarta politicians have to contend with, but something that contenders for the 2019 Presidential election will have to take into serious account, Setijadi says.

“If Anies Baswedan wins in Jakarta, it would partly be because he has successfully appealed to conservative Islamist factions and implicitly aligned himself with hardline groups. This is a very risky play.

“In the future, both Anies and Prabowo may be pressured to sway to the demands of hardline Islamists in pushing back against religious minorities and secularist establishments. This in turn could change the character of the Islamic public sphere in Indonesia,” says Setijadi.

The author says Prabowo and his Coalition probably think that they can control the hardliners, but the surge would be very hard to stop or manage once the floodgates are opened.

Ultimately, an Ahok defeat would show that his (and Jokowi’s) opponents’ strategy of using race and religious issues as a political tool to delegitimise the current leadership has worked.

“This would set a dangerous precedent, not just for the 2019 Presidential election but for the future of Indonesian plural society more generally,” she says.

“Jokowi will need to take a much stronger stance against Islamist hardliners and engage in both public and backstage power play if he is to push them back to the fringes of national politics.”

 Since late October 2016, Jakarta has seen mass Islamic protests as the straight-talking Ahok , a Christian, was accused of blasphemy for his comments on the Koran.  He faces a five-year jail sentence if found guilty. But at the time of writing, it appeared that he might get probation instead of jail.

Throughout the campaign, both Baswedan and Yudhoyono emphasised their Muslim identities and made shows of Islamic piety to appeal to Muslim voters.

“Anies even went so far as to meet with the FPI in a move that shocked those who had seen him as a moderate Muslim politician,” Setejida wrote.

“Considering that the FPI is widely viewed as a vigilante group that in the past had posed as an Islamic ‘police’ against vices and has engaged in violent extra-judicial raids on nightclubs and bars among others, Baswedan’s nod towards the unlawful group must be seen as a dangerous gesture by a politician who could potentially be Jakarta’s next Governor.

“In addition, throughout the campaign, Ahok had also been attacked for his Chinese ethnicity. While this had happened before, the intensity of fake news and anti-Chinese hate-speech this time around was alarming.

“Many of the hoaxes alleged Chinese (both in terms of PRC and Chinese Indonesian) economic and political conspiracies, not only behind Ahok, but also close ally President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), himself no stranger to anti-Chinese smear campaigns.

“For instance, fake news circulated anonymously on social media claimed that Ahok’s free HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine programme could make girls infertile, and was therefore part of a greater Chinese conspiracy to diminish the native Indonesian population.

“Others alleged that both Jokowi and Ahok were actually agents of Communist China.”

“It is important to note that the circulation of these anti-Chinese materials has worried many Chinese Indonesians, a community that had been traumatised by past anti-Chinese attacks.

“While the vast majority of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese supports Ahok, a number of Chinese Indonesians expressed concern to this author during fieldwork that Ahok had stirred up too much unwanted attention towards the Chinese.

“ For instance, an ethnic Chinese political analyst remarked that, while it was important that the Chinese had strong political representation, a controversial and combative figure like Ahok was not necessarily good for Chinese Indonesians.”

There were FPI-led anti-Chinese protests against Ahok in 2012 when he was Jokowi’s running mate for the Jakarta gubernatorial race. But the main focus then was not on Ahok.

Jokowi himself was the subject of an anti-Chinese smear campaign during the 2014 Presidential race when it was rumoured that he was of Chinese descent.

“Throughout his tenure as President, Jokowi has also received criticism for being ‘too close’ to China.

“Islamist hardliners like the FPI have been able to rally grievances and give voice to those who suffered under Ahok’s policies, such as among those forcibly evicted from Jakarta’s slum areas.

“Similarly, since Ahok is an ethnic Chinese with alleged ties to rich Chinese business tycoons, a vote for Ahok is purported to be a vote for Chinese (and therefore ‘foreign’ or non-native) influences in the Indonesian economy and politics,” Setijadi wrote.

It is hardly surprising, given the scenes of violent protest in the streets of Jakarta, that ethnic Chinese are concerned about their future welfare. 

• Florence Chong is Editor of ATI Magazine