The lead-up to the first round of the Jakarta election saw mass rallies organised by hardline Islamist groups and an atmosphere highly charged with racial and religious sentiment. But while some fear that Indonesia is about to be engulfed by fanaticism it is not because hardliners are more powerful than ever. As Bastiaan Scherpen argues, it is rather the opposite: the access to power they enjoyed during the rule of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been cut off.

Unlike the general public, in the lead-up to voting practically the entire foreign media in Indonesia  framed the Jakarta gubernatorial election on 15 February as a test of tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Some even went as far as speaking of a nation teetering on the brink of disaster.

Yet no major security disruptions were reported, turnout was over 77 per cent (a record high), an ethnic Chinese Christian incumbent won most votes in the first round despite fierce campaigns against him, while the scion of a still-powerful political dynasty-in-the-making set an important precedent with a widely praised admission of defeat.

When looking at the use of Islamic sentiment in the Jakarta election, a glass half-full or glass half-empty situation emerges: some say the effect was limited while others focus instead on the fact that it did play a role.

Edward Aspinall argued that while the anti-Ahok campaigns certainly had an impact, this was not surprising and he stressed that their influence was limited. At the same time it is true that Islamic sentiment is increasingly being used for political gain and some in Indonesia feel the atmosphere is so tense that they have raised the specter of 1998 in fear of renewed racial discrimination or even violence.

Alexander R Arifianto has pointed out that Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah face deep internal divisions as well, but it is important to note that this rupture within mainstream Muslim organisations is only part of the story that explains why Islam has been such a powerful mobilising force in recent months.

There is ongoing encroachment of conservative Islamic values on Indonesian culture – which makes the faith attractive for political use – but the current upheaval should also be seen in light of the larger struggle for power by the three kingmakers of Indonesian politics: Megawati Sukarnoputri, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prabowo Subianto.

Jakarta is a stepping stone on the way to the 2019 presidential elections and current campaigns provide a preview of the political struggle in the years ahead. The Muslim vote is even more important on the national stage than it is in Jakarta, so Islam could become an even more powerful political weapon, but that does not in itself prove that conservative or hardline Islamist forces are gaining ground.

What is happening in conjunction with the rise of increasingly confident Islamic activism is also simply a reaction by players who have lost their access to formal power and have no other recourse than the Internet and the street.

Certainly the mass rallies in Jakarta that attracted hundreds of thousands of people last year and a relatively large pre-election gathering more recently at Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta gave many people the impression that political Islam is bigger than ever.

In reality, however, the administration of Jokowi has been quite effective at shutting out the voices of conservative Islam and encouraging the faith’s main representative organisations – NU and Muhammadiyah – to support the government line, while also cracking down hard on violent extremists, as evidenced by the string of terrorism arrests and raids since last year.

Islamist organisations such as the FPI, the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) have become more vocal and more effective at channeling their aspirations into street rallies, but they are not wielding more power than during the decade of Yudhoyono’s rule – rather the opposite.

Yudhoyono gave the representatives of conservative Islam practically free rein from 2005, with his support for a greater role for the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which increasingly came under the control of illiberal figures. Ma’ruf Amin – who currently heads the MUI and is one of the most conservative voices among the NU leadership – long served on the elder Yudhoyono’s Presidential Advisory Board (Wantimpres) to help shape policies on religious affairs.

Although his own Islamic credentials are questionable, United Development Party (PPP) politician Suryadharma Ali – currently serving a 10-year jail sentence for various graft charges – served as a facilitator for hardline elements during his time as religious affairs minister. As such, he was one of the key figures in the anti-Ahmadiyah campaign that turned deadly in 2011 when a mob attacked followers of the sect in Banten’s Pandeglang regency. He also called for Shiites to “convert” to Sunni Islam, repeating demands emanating from hardline groups.

Even though hardline groups continued their agitation against minorities during the Yudhoyono years, they did not specifically direct their campaigns against the government – because it was on their side. But the lines between hardline Islamists and the highest levels of government were cut with the election of Jokowi in 2014.

Suryadharma’s replacement as minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, is currently leading an effort to certify religious leaders and control who is allowed to preach at Friday prayers at mosques – a move some see as direct and unacceptable government interference in religious affairs.

Hardline Muslims and conservative members of NU and Muhammadiyah also see the leadership of the bulwarks of mainstream Indonesian Islam as having been co-opted by the administration of Jokowi, who paid several visits to their respective headquarters during the time of the mass rallies against Ahok.

Neither organisation joined the rallies and both NU and Muhammadiyah are represented in the government through relatively progressive figures such as Lukman and Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa, and Muhammadiyah University Malang (UMM) rector and long-time Muhammadiyah functionary Muhadjir Effendy, who replaced Anies Baswedan as education and culture minister in July last year.

It is clear there is a degree of support among the population for greater representation of Islam at the nation’s top levels of government and the perception that the administration is failing to meet those expectations could increase the risk of social instability, as hardline groups have proven they are more than willing to make themselves heard. But for now, the government remains firmly in control and the line is being drawn at respect for Pancasila, as is evident in the series of legal cases against FPI leader Rizieq Shihab.

This may not bode well for freedom of expression in Indonesia, but such efforts will make it clear to hardline Islamist groups exactly how far they can go. That move is long overdue.

Bastiaan Scherpen studied History, Asian Studies and Islamic Studies in the Netherlands and currently works as an analyst at Concord Consulting in Jakarta. He tweets via @bscherpen and has a website: