Indonesian democracy remains susceptible to illiberal tendencies, particularly when politicians use ethno-religious issues as a cudgel in campaigning, instead of their track records and policies, writes Yohanes Sulaiman.

This Wednesday, seven provinces, 76 districts, and 18 cities in Indonesia will hold simultaneous regional elections. Many outsiders, including many Indonesians themselves, could perhaps be forgiven for being under the impression that only Jakarta will hold a ballot.

That is because the current Game of Thrones-worthy drama involving incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, also known as Ahok, his political rivals, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, and Anies Baswedan, and their supporters, is sucking the air from everything else.

There are several reasons why the Jakarta gubernatorial election is gripping the nation.

First is the simple fact that Jakarta is one of the richest provinces in Indonesia, with an annual budget of more than 60 trillion rupiah. Based on estimates from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (KADIN), more than 70 per cent of the money circulated in Indonesia is in Jakarta. Combined with a lack of supervision and accountability, this could allow significant budget irregularities to take place.

Second, is the fact that Jakarta is the headquarters of many of Indonesia’s mass media outlets, including television stations, and online and print media. This provides huge exposure to anything that happens within the city and province’s borders.

Surprisingly though, Jakarta’s election was not originally seen as that important to anyone with higher political aspirations. The first and second Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2007 and 2012 were relatively low key affairs, with observers initially believing that that Fauzi “Foke” Wibowo, then the deputy and later the incumbent governor, would coast to reelection.

It is only with the election of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2012 as the governor of Jakarta, and his effective use of media to showcase his impromptu visits to Jakarta slums (blusukan), followed by his winning the Indonesian Presidency in 2014, that the position of Jakarta Governor has suddenly gained greater importance. In fact, the question about whether the role could launch a bid for the presidency was the final question in the first formal Jakarta gubernatorial debate.

As a result, this election has attracted many high-profile candidates who are aiming for higher office, including the incumbent governor himself. Back in 2015, the Jakarta Post speculated whether Ahok could be the potential vice-presidential candidate for Jokowi in 2019. Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, resigned from his promising military career to run for the office with the aim of securing candidacy for the 2019 presidential election. Anies Baswedan, the former Minister of Education, is widely seen as using this election to get his political career back on track, while at the same time, testing the water for Prabowo Subianto’s next attempt for the presidency in 2019.

With the stakes so high, it is unsurprising that the campaign has taken an ugly turn, especially on sectarian issues, which always simmer in background. Ahok’s loose lips, combined with a crucial deletion in an edited, circulated transcript from a public speech, and which gave the impression that he had insulted the Qur’an, poured oil on a flaming issue, as well as giving ammunition to his political opponents to try and bring down his election campaign. By framing the entire election as Muslim versus non-Muslim candidates, Ahok’s political opponents boxed him in, ensuring that the governor could not simply run on his track record. His verbal gaffe has dogged him the entire race. His weekly trials in the Jakarta court have also reminded voters of the issue.

This, in turn, has made the election less of a referendum on Ahok’s controversial – and often illiberal – policies, including eviction and forced displacement of the city’s poor living illegally on riverbanks. Instead, the vote has come to be seen as a struggle between hard-line religious fanatics versus moderate, pluralistic Indonesia. For Ahok’s political opponents, the election has been framed as Muslim versus non-Muslim voters, even though the majority of Jakarta’s Muslim population most likely do not think that way.

This led to an interesting paradox in mid-January when a survey by polling group Indikator showed that 75 per cent of respondents were satisfied with Ahok’s performance, but his electability was just at 38.2 per cent. It is possible that people will vote differently on Wednesday, with many in the end still choosing Ahok. Anecdotal evidence (based on my casual observations of social media and conversations with taxi drivers, for example) shows that many voters are simply unwilling or afraid to openly show their support for Ahok. A research note by Nathanael Gratias also provides an interesting argument that religious issues don’t really matter. Instead it is racism that has a significant impact in lowering Ahok’s electability.

Still, while racism could play a role in making people not vote for Ahok, the issue should also be seen in the context of religious warfare. For example, there have been many ‘black campaigns’ that suggest Ahok’s Chinese ethnicity is proof of him being a communist with China providing illegal voters and identity cards to help Ahok win the election. By raising the spectre of Communism, Ahok’s opponents paint him as the true enemy of Islam, resurrecting the bogeyman, as well as the memory of a long and bitter fight between the Indonesian Communist Party and Muslim parties like Nadlatul Ulama and Masjumi in the 1950s and 60s.

What is clear is that turning the election into a religious issue has had an impact, as many people fear to be publicly caught on the wrong side of theology. In this case, it is obvious that identity politics works – at least in squelching dissent, and controlling discourse. Moreover, identity politics emboldens religious-based vigilante groups to attack religious minorities, as seen in Bandung, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya in December 2016 until the police decided to crack down on them.

So what are the implications?

First, at least in the short term, political Islam has made a major comeback as a dominant discourse in Indonesian politics. While it has never disappeared, the election of Jokowi as the president had curbed political Islam to some degree, with vigilante groups like the Islamic Defenders Front laying low – until now. The gubernatorial election has provided an opportunity for these vigilante groups to come out of the woodwork again – with implicit blessings from Ahok’s political opponents.

Second, with the Jakarta gubernatorial election seen as a proxy campaign for the 2019 Presidential Election, President Jokowi has been unwittingly dragged in to this Wednesday’s vote. Ahok is seen as his proxy and that in turn makes it very difficult for the President and the police to do anything to deal with radicals without someone questioning his motive. Like it or not, opposition against Jokowi will only intensify irrespective of whether Ahok wins or loses. If Ahok wins, Jokowi would be seen as helping Ahok from behind the scenes. If Ahok loses, the radicals will smell blood and would hope to add another scalp in their collection.

Third, Indonesian democracy remains susceptible to illiberal tendencies, where politicians are using ethno-religious issues as a cudgel in campaigning, instead of campaigning on their track records and policies. With the Jakarta gubernatorial election being framed – unfairly or not – as a struggle between Muslim and non-Muslium candidates, should Ahok lose, political Islam will have a much bigger role in the 2019 Presidential election.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani, Cimahi, Bandung. He can be reached at [email protected]. His Twitter handle is @yohanessulaiman

The author would like to thank Alex Arifianto, Asrudin Azwar, Djayadi Hanan, and Musa Maliki for their helpful comments.