The Ahok affair: Will Jakarta’s election pave the way for Indonesia to turn decisively to Islamic conservatism?

Photo: Australian Embassy Jakarta/CC BY 2.0

Jakarta voters went to the polls to pick a new governor in January. The resulting run-off looks set to split the electorate along religious lines and could set the scene for country-wide political changes.

By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by John Pennington

Jakarta residents recently voted in a highly contentious gubernatorial election. It was a clear fight between conservatives who want Islam to play an even bigger role in politics and society, and moderates in Indonesia. The balance is tilting towards the conservatives.

The election puts Indonesia’s religious tolerance to the test

The election is contentious because incumbent Basuku Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok) is currently being tried for blasphemy. He stands accused of insulting Islam following a speech in September, when he told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to vote for me – because you’ve been lied to by those using (the Quran’s) Surah al-Maidah verse 51. That’s your right.”

An edited recording of his speech went viral, and as a result radical Islamist organisation Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) led protests against him. The protests were the biggest in Indonesia’s post-colonial history, and shook the centrist-minded President Jokowi’s government.

If convicted, Ahok faces up to five years of imprisonment – which is highly possible given the frequency with which the law has been used in the past decade. According to an Amnesty International report, blasphemy law in Indonesia was rarely used between its enactment in 1965 and the start of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s tenure in 2004. Between 2004 and 2014, 106 individuals were convicted of blasphemy for holding minority religious views and beliefs.

This election puts Indonesia’s religious tolerance and political future at stake. Director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict Sidney Jones told TIME magazine, “The Ahok issue has been a rallying point that has brought many different strands (of radical Islam) together.” The way they raised support for their protests against Ahok shows how easily radical Islamists can attract people to their ideology, which threatens to divide the country along religious lines.

Unofficial vote counts put Ahok ahead but not by enough to win outright

The two other candidates who stood against Ahok during the January election were Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of ex-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and former education minister Anies Rasyid Baswedan.

The official results will be declared on 27th February, but unofficial vote counts showed that Ahok, despite the blasphemy charge, won 43% of the vote, short of the 50% required for an outright win. Anies, who courted conservative and hard-line Muslims, trailed by three points, while Agus won only 17%.

A tight and ugly run-off is expected in April in which religion will play a determining role. The run-off will pit the Christian Ahok against Anies, who is backed by conservative Muslim clerics. How Agus’ supporters vote will likely determine who wins. Anies may end up picking up support from the non-Christian and non-Chinese voters who unite against Ahok on the basis of his blasphemy trial and his identity as a Christian and an ethnic Chinese.

The election result could bring about big changes

The result of this gubernatorial election will determine Indonesia’s political future in two ways. Firstly, it calls into question whether Indonesia will remain a moderate Muslim society or become more conservative.

Under Suharto’s “New Order” Islam’s influence grew slowly

Under Suharto’s “New Order”, religious expression and the ideology of Islamic groups was repressed. He imposed tight control by forcing the four Islamic parties to fuse into one, called Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP), and five non-Islamic parties to merge and become the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI). Suharto also imposed Pancasila as the state’s official ideology – an attempt to formalise religious tolerance and neutrality.

Suharto promulgated the Mass Organisation and Political Bill, which required all organisations to conform to Pancasila, implicitly forbidding them from using Islam as a basis. He also established the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) to control political Islam. In the mid-1980s, Suharto became more tolerant and gradually but systematically incorporated Islam into politics. He even went to Mecca for the haji pilgrimage in 1991 to demonstrate that he was a good Muslim.

But the truth is that religious neutrality and tolerance have been minor players in Indonesia’s history. Pancasila was used to impose social control, and Suharto’s incorporation of Islam was meant to help him recover from decades of military brutality caused by mistakes early in his rule.

The end of Suharto’s tenure was a big turning point

Suharto’s resignation in 1998 created the conditions for open discussion of religious discourse and activism. Islam has since played a more prominent role in politics. Radical Islamist groups such as the FPI and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council were founded after the collapse of “New Order”. Although these groups cannot count on broad support among Indonesians, they are able take opportunities and capitalise on biased or unfair governmental policy. For instance, in 2016, FPI set up a charity operation that provided food and basic necessities to 1,000 Luar Batang residents from the when the government threatened them with eviction.

Subsequent presidents also facilitated Indonesia’s turn towards conservative Islam, albeit unintentionally. President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie liberalised regulations governing establishment of political parties, paving the way for Islam’s political resurgence. As many as 48 political parties contested the 1999 election, although only five were major parties. Many political parties now openly endorse sharia law, including the conservative Partai Bulan Bintang (PBB). Others, such as Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) have Islam as their ideological basis and philosophy. Even Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP), the only Islamic party that accepted Pancasila when it was founded, has reverted to Islam and its old symbol, ka’ba.

Similarly, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono explicitly empowered the previously toothless MUI in 2005. The MUI then issued fatwas condemning secularism, pluralism, and liberalism as being anti-Islam. Other clear signs of increasing Islamic conservatism include a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from wearing Santa hats, telecom providers blocking access to Netflix, sharia law being applied to non-Muslims in the Aceh province, calls for a bill to ban the sale of alcohol across the country, and the proliferation of state-sponsored homophobia.

Indonesia’s conservative Islamists look set to overpower the moderates

What does the future hold for the country with the largest Muslim majority in the world? Foreign Policy predicted that Indonesia’s moderate Islam will slowly crumble if they continue to be complacent. Social activist Alissa Wahid said, “The essential problem of blasphemy with Ahok’s case is not for us to decide, but it highlights how fear and hatred of the ‘other’ have been politically exploited.”

Jokowi must now maintain this delicate balance and prevent one side from overpowering another. However, considering how he has been unable to deliver many of his promises since he took office and the way in which radical Islamists are attacking his ally Ahok, it is hard to imagine how he will be able to restore the balance anytime soon.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.