From popular choice to mass protests: what happened to Jakarta’s Governor Ahok?

Photo: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama/Facebook

Peaceful protests turned to violence as thousands of people took to the streets of Jakarta to protest against President Jokowi’s former right-hand man and leading candidate in the next gubernatorial election. Behind this growing unrest is a worrying mix of racism and political discontent among the country’s urban poor.

By Holly Reeves

Jakarta’s eccentric and charismatic governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, says he has prepared his family for him to face a jail term. His long-time ally President Jokowi says he will not protect him. But how has a man who was just weeks ago the firm favourite to keep the seat of power in the capital city fallen quite so low?

“Arrest and try Ahok and his cronies dead or alive,” read a sign suspended from Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia as a reported 150,000 people took to the streets across the country last week. He is guilty of blasphemy, claim his critics, but is racism and political discontent a more appropriate answer?

Allegations of blasphemy

The charge against him is that he said his opposition was using a Quranic verse to campaign against him. In particular, a line which suggests Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders. In the last week he has been named as a suspect in a blasphemy case, if convicted he could face up to five years in jail. While denying he intended to upset anyone, Ahok has apologised for any offence taken.

Out on the streets, this has not been enough. Hardline agitators from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are accused of rallying violence as mobs of young men threw rocks and bottles, broke into shops and burned cars. They are also supposed to have threatened to overrun the building where Ahok and his family live. In the face of this unrest, President Jokowi was forced to ground his plans to travel to Australia while a citizen died out on the street, and 12 others were hurt.

It is a difficult position for the current Indonesian president as Ahok once served as his deputy and they have been close political allies in the past. However, he was clear on his position saying,“I will not protect brother Basuki Tjahaja Purnama because it is now entering a legal process.” He did, it is worth noting, at least seek to defend his friend saying the action of political players was at the root of the issue.

Since the protests Ahok and his team have attended an intense case screening with witnesses from both sides arguing for and against a blasphemy conviction for the governor. He returns for further testimony next week but is adamant these actions will have no impact on his campaign.

Beneath the surface

There is, however, a deeper layer to both the protests and the push for police action, both ethnically and politically. The easy divide which sets Ahok apart from Jakarta’s millions of residents is his ethnic Chinese status. In Muslim-majority Indonesia, this group makes up just 1% of the country’s population and his Christian religion splits him from the pack still further.

But to write this off as a tale of yet another religious clash is overly simplistic analysis. According to Ismail Hasani, research director of the Setara Institute rights group, surveys showed only a small number of residents would take religion into consideration in choosing a governor, though “smear campaigns and sectarian attacks in public would likely take place that could pose a serious problem.”

To repeat again, religion is a factor but not at the core of the issue; only 12 to 15% of voters are hardline Muslims that would be influenced by religious considerations, says recent research. Instead, it is Ahok’s politics that have lit the fuel beneath these protests.

On the one hand, he has campaigned for a minimum wage, free school education, tackling corruption and has worked to break the deadlock of traffic congestion. On the other, he has become known for forced evictions on the urban poor. Unfounded rumours abound that the reason behind these clearances is to create new opportunities for ethnic Chinese developers. In this way, whispers and realpolitik have undermined the campaign of a strong favourite. 

As to what we, and the country, can learn from this latest round of violence; there is a section of the urban poor that need more than personality to win their vote. Most observers assume that this round of voting is a warm-up to the 2017 General Election, where it will be Jokowi looking to retain his seat. He does not need to face the challenge of discrete racism or religious differences that Ahok is up against, but he may well face the same concerns of personality over policy. He has done the right thing by seeking transparency in the case of his friend, but will he step so carefully when his own role is in play?