As Jakarta heads to the polls, Chris Chaplin argues that evoking Islamic identity and the opportunistic use of religious symbols in this election has set a dangerous precedent for Indonesia’s democracy. 

Today, Indonesia will hold 101 provincial and local elections, reaffirming the strength of electoral politics across the country. Yet, the bitter gubernatorial campaign in Jakarta has polarised Indonesians and raised concerns that the democratic process is under threat from Islamic conservatives and politicians seeking to subvert the authority of President Joko Widodo and his ally Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaj Purnama.

There is much that is unique about what has happening in Jakarta, and there are consequences to evoking Islamic identity for political gains. However, if the scale and disaccord are particular to this case, the meddling of political oligarchs, mobilisation of groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI), and opportunistic use of religious symbols are endemic to Indonesian politics.

Ahok — a rogue outsider?
The ferocity of the gubernatorial campaign is in part due to the capital’s size and significance of the governorship; indeed it was occupied by president Joko Widodo when he launched his presidential bid just under three years ago. It is also linked to what Ahok represents. While his Christian faith and ethnic Hakka Chinese background separate him from rival candidates, he is more than the sum of his ethnic and religious identity. As a close friend of Jokowi who publicly snubbed Prabowo Subianto when he left the Gerindra party, he is seen as a brash upstart and outspoken ‘anti-establishment’ politician.

He has made a name for himself by attempting to clean up the city’s bureaucracy. When, in 2015, discrepancies arose within the city’s governmental budget after the city’s legislative members attempted to include a number of additional proposals, Ahok exposed collusive practices between legislative members and civil servants who were systematically adding projects and influencing the tendering procedures for their own material benefit. He has subsequently made it his mission to shake up the bureaucracy; demoting, firing or replacing over 1,000 civil servants during his tenure.

If efforts to clean up the elite have won him praise from supporters, it has been cause for disdain among political and bureaucratic opponents. He is accused of being disrespectful to the city’s legislature, as well as bold and arrogant. One of his rival candidates, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, portentously emphasised these flaws during the final electoral candidate debate on 11 February.

Several of Ahok’s policies are also cause of concern. A planned land reclamation project in North Jakarta has been criticised by fishermen and environmental activists, while the speed at which he has forcefully displaced residents in illegal settlements along the Ciliwung river has caused turmoil for countless families. According to the Legal Aid Foundation, there have been over 16,000 in the last two years alone. This figure is troubling as not only did Ahok and Jokowi previously promise many of these communities they would be safe from eviction, but the majority have not been provided any permanent and viable alternative housing.

Defending the faith
Ahok’s position as a vocal and controversial governor should have provided ample material for an election that could, at least in terms of debate, move beyond concerns over his identity and religion. Yet after Ahok was denounced by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia or MUI) for insulting Islam while quoting Qur’anic verse al-Maidah 51, and subsequently charged with blasphemy, scant attention has been given to anything else. Indeed, according to a recent poll by Indikator Politik Indonesia, the primary concern of voters is whether Ahok should be convicted or not.

On the surface, these charges and the three demonstrations that occurred in late 2016 concern a single issue. In reality however, Islam became a conductor for a wider range of grievances against the governor. While the National Movement to Guard the Fatwa of the MUI (Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia, GNPF-MUI), who organised the three demonstrations in late 2016, frame the demonstrations as a populist outpouring by pious Muslims, those present were diverse and far from unified. They included the FPI and conservative Islamic intellectuals who oppose Ahok on religious grounds, trade union activists who used the march to demand higher wages, politicians, as well as Jakartans who had suffered due to the displacement policies of Ahok. Further adding to this mix were Islamic scholars who used the march to express dismay towards their own leaders, as was the case with Nahdlatul Ulama’s Garis Lurus (straight line) whose attendance at the march was a direct challenge toward Nahdlatul Ulama’s leader, Said Aqil Siradj, who attempted to ban members from attending.

The demonstrations held political significance beyond Ahok and the Jakarta elections. It is suspected that the major sponsor of the rally was former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), whose son is running against Ahok. SBY is thought to have resented the way he has been sidelined from Indonesian politics since Jokowi became president, and so sought to undermine his successor by targeting his ally. Jokowi was initially caught off guard by the sheer size of the November march, and by being left stranded at Sukarno-Hatta airport, seemed vulnerable. However, in an attempt to outmaneuver opponents, the president later ordered the detention of 10 high profile political figures on the morning of 1 December, and attended the anti-Ahok rally later that day in order to curb efforts to turn it into a broader demonstration against his government.

Consequences for democracy
The rallies (two in late 2016 and one in 2017) have thus sought to discredit Ahok through an emotive appeal to Islamic identity and have polarised the electorate. Ahok’s electoral opponents have sought to capitalise on this as both Sandiago Uno (Anies Baswedan’s running mate) and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono are undertaking the ummrah (lesser hajj) in the days prior to the election. This follows an all too familiar pattern within Indonesian politics, where they become sources of legitimacy as a way to discredit one’s opponents. Frequently, this also includes the mobilisation of youth, crowds and vigilantes such as the FPI for political purpose. We cannot forget the FPI has often thrown their support behind political candidates at given times — as was the case when they supported Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 presidential election.

This is to the detriment of the Jakarta electorate, as genuine debate concerning the actual policies of the three pairs of candidates has been of secondary importance — despite the election also being the first time live TV debates between candidates took place. It is also not without broader consequence. Appeals to Islamic identity may be familiar, criminal charges of blasphemy against a sitting governor are new. To be sure, the use of blasphemy laws is worryingly on the rise, and Amnesty International reported that over 106 people were charged with blasphemy from 2004 to 2014; but at no point have they arguably been as politically motivated as now.

The demonstrations have also boosted the prestige of the FPI and their conservative allies, and provided a vehicle through which their interpretation of Islam can be brought to the wider public. Youth either directly involved in the march, or who have attended one of the many ‘follow-up’ religious sessions organised by the GNPF MUI under the Safari212 roadshow, have become a potential pool for new recruits. The organisers of the Safari212 may not call on the audience to conduct violence, but the political ramification of appealing to a politically loaded idea of Islam that opposes a Christian and Chinese governor sets a dangerous precedent. Among those who attended such an event in Makassar, South Sulawesi, there has been a notable increase in references to the need for rule by ‘Pribumi’ (sons of the soil), hostility to kafir (unbelievers), and praise for tough tactics against the enemies of Islam.

Indeed, Indonesian history is full of examples where the opportunistic manipulation of Islamic forces have mutated into something beyond the control of those who initially flamed them.

Chris Chaplin is a sociologist and researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV).