How Jakarta’s 4 November protest will impact on Indonesia’s democratic consolidation and the Jokowi presidency.

Last Friday more than 150,000 people converged on the Indonesia capital, Jakarta, demanding the government immediately prosecute current Governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, or Ahok.

The peaceful demonstration quickly erupted into a riot when a group of protesters refused to disperse and clashed with police.

The rioters were disappointed by President Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s decision not to meet with their representatives, though Vice President Jusuf Kalla had sat with them earlier to discuss demands to indict Ahok as soon as possible.

Many have labelled the protesters as hard-line Muslims or even extremists. Following the demonstration, some even claimed that Indonesia is moving towards Islamic-based politics.

So what does the protest mean for Indonesian politics and democracy? And in what ways will the situation impact the country’s democratic consolidation? One clear trend that the protest points to is the rise of identity politics in Indonesia.

Political parties in Indonesia have been quick to adopt pragmatic and catch all strategies to attract voters. These moves have provided parties with the flexibility for political manoeuvring. It has also opened up the opportunity for identity politics to emerge. This includes the exploitation of pro-majority based issues, such as the use of Islamic concerns in Muslim majority areas, by Indonesia political parties to gain legitimacy.

As such, ethnic and religious sentiments have shaped and may continue to affect, the course of a growing political division within Indonesian society — as seen in the 4 November demonstration. Strong currents of social resentments towards particular minorities that are perceived to have been dominating the country’s economic order quickly come into play – even though the majority of protesters’ initial aspiration for the demonstration was to pressure the government to prosecute Ahok for a statement he made about the Quran.

More broadly, the fact that political parties were so quickly swept up in the furore shows that the majority of them are unable to deal with ethnic and religious sentiments other than manipulating them for short-term political gain.

It is also interesting to see how some of the country’s key political elites viewed the rally. Two days before the demonstration, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave a press conference at his residence in Cikeas, which he referred to as “our home of struggle.” In a rather unusual stern gesture, Yudhoyono urged the current government to respect the rule of law, implying that there is no other option to ease the rising political escalation except to take Ahok to court.

Yudhoyono also stated the demonstration was legitimate and justified by the inalienable rights of the people, criticising the Jokowi administration’s handling of the issue. SBY’s reluctance to disavow religious-backed vigilante groups suggest that even the “champion of pluralism” could not resist the temptation of playing the game of identity politics.

In addition to Indonesia’s democratic consolidation, the protests will also impact how Jokowi steers the ship during the remainder of his presidency.

In his third year in office President Jokowi will possibly face fiercer political battles with the opposition. His role as a “normal politician” might disappoint his supporters as compromise and clique-driven appointments dominate the decision-making process instead of strategic issues. This reality has the potential to undermine his standing among those who voted him in.

To make sure he is not caught between a rock and a hard place, President Jokowi seems to have a two-game strategy planned out for the remainder of his term.

The first game is continuing the new developmentalism agenda, advancing infrastructure development, and inviting foreign investment to the country. While not everyone is happy with this strategy, the President has to find a way to reconcile different and conflicting interests related to the country’s long-term development plan.

The second game is strengthening his hand enough to play the populism card. In this regard, his welfare-oriented program, comprising Indonesia Sehat (Healthy Indonesia) and Indonesia Pintar (Smart Indonesia), could provide the chips needed to support this play. Intensifying the anti-corruption campaign is another potential way to enhance his administration’s performance in the eyes of voters. In the realm of security, improving border security might also help build support.

Having said that, the 4 November protest, and the immediate implications for Jokowi’s political strategy, suggest that Indonesian democratic consolidation remains fragile due to the constant exploitation and manipulation of identity politics — perpetrated by political elites and vigilante groups alike. This is a challenge that will continually haunt President Jokowi, his administration and compatriots facing the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election and 2019 presidential election.

The fall of Ahok will help Agus Yudhoyono and Anies Baswedan in the race to become Jakarta’s next governor. Together with Sandiaga Uno, they are considered young and prominent politicians. This could pave the way for all of them to play a bigger role in Indonesian politics on the national stage – as it did for Jokowi.

Adhi Priamarizki is PhD student at the Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. Twitter: @adhipriamarizki

Muhamad Haripin is PhD student at the Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, and researcher at Centre for Political Studies LIPI, Jakarta. Twitter: @mharipin