Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has cited security concerns in Jakarta to cancel this week’s visit to Australia.  Duncan Graham has doubts.

As political sport the Friday 4 November Jakarta demo was generally a crowd-pleaser, though the off-field ending was bad. Hours after the 6pm whistle and with most supporters in their divine white heading home, the hoon minority torched police cars before being teargassed.  One man died apparently from an asthma attack, a dozen hospitalised.

Tut-tutting Australians should remember the 2004 Redfern and 2005 Cronulla race riots.

With estimates of 150,000 (1.5 per cent of Jakarta’s population) on the streets stoked by firebrands claiming the Deity needs protection from real or imagined insults, the protest against Christian Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama could have been far worse.

No gunfire, no bombs and only one shop looted. If correct all credit must go to the religious and civil authorities – particularly the police who used the finer sex to cool conflict.

Prominently placed officers in jilbab (headscarves) showed the cops weren’t faithless. The tactic was less spiritual than carnal. Indonesian policewomen get picked more for beauty than brawn.

The distraction worked with ogling lads taking breaks from fist-thrusting for selfies with the girls in green. During the first round New York Times correspondent Joe Cochrane tweeted:

I think ‘political stunt’ is more accurate. Vast majority of protesters paid teenagers, and not even from Jakarta. No voters. More. Impact on Ahok close to zero. A mere sideshow.

Jokowi was inspecting an airport project while the march was underway. So why use it as an excuse to duck his trip Down Under?  His minders may have feared exposure to West Papua independence protesters – but that was always possible.

More likely is that he just changed his mind – he’s well known for no-shows. For all the warm words about the relationship in the interviews before departure he’s no internationalist. The timing was ridiculous coinciding with the US election pushing positive publicity off page and screen.

Friday’s demo was billed as the Islam Defenders’ Front (FPI) grand final spectacular. They promised mayhem but couldn’t deliver.

Their antics are becoming tiresome. Disruptions beyond traffic snarls and flooding are no longer tolerable. They claim holiness but are just pseudo-religious thugs.

Apart from Ahok few have dared challenge the FPI’s legitimacy, which explains their hate. Unfortunately Jokowi’s cancellation gives them status that on current information they don’t deserve.

Columnist Julia Suryakusuma has likened FPI followers to plane passengers preferring an incompetent Muslim pilot than a qualified Christian, even as disaster looms.

Banners at the demo demanding Ahok’s death were exceptional. Most wanted him charged with blasphemy which may well happen. There was nothing against Jokowi who retains widespread support.

Gubernatorial elections will be held in February. A need for President Jokowi to stay at home then might make sense – but not now.

Ahok is smart, tough, loose-tongued, an effective reformer,  but hobbled by his Protestant faith and Chinese ethnicity. His main threat is former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, an Islamic intellectual supported by retired General Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra (Greater Indonesia) Party.

The President and Ahok are PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) mates from when Jokowi was governor and Ahok his sidekick.

Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has his son Agus Harimurti, 38, in the three-way contest to run the capital. Commentators give the colourless US educated Army major no chance.

Jakarta shenanigans aren’t yet in the Trump-Clinton septic swamp but they are getting smelly. Religion was a cert to smear – the only question was how.

Ahok helped by commenting on a Koranic verse said to prohibit Muslims being led by a kafir (unbeliever).  He allegedly used the word dibohongi (lied) giving the FPI a hook to hang an insulter of the Holy Book. It’s since been revealed that the man who transcribed Ahok’s comments made a mistake.

If jailed for blasphemy he’ll be out of the race, so all may not be as it seems on the surface.

In his post match analysis Jokowi praised daytime discipline but condemned faceless ‘political actors’ manipulating the after-hours brawl. This is a timeworn standard like ‘Canberra mandarins’ in Australian politics.

During the demo in 30 degree heat FPI organisers who’d bussed in outsiders handed out thousands of drinks and snacks – but wouldn’t name the donors. SBY reacted furiously to suggestions his Democratic Party was the bankroller.

Three days before kick-off Jokowi went to see Prabowo at his ‘residential retreat’ aka ‘spacious ranch’ in Bogor south of Jakarta.

For those unfamiliar with Indonesian culture the president knocking on his former rival’s gate was bewildering, but to Javanese it made sense. Maintaining harmony and staying polite are essential virtues; Jokowi sought support to hose down possible violence at the demo and lost no votes by taking the initiative.

When Prabowo’s father-in-law Suharto ran the nation for 32 years, SARA (suku, agama, ras, antar golongan) rules gagged comment on ethnicity, religion and race.

Democratic reforms uncorked the bottle letting the FPI harass liberals, homosexual law reformers, feminists and anyone who thinks outside their narrow focus.

Prabowo supported calls for calm:  “We are a plural country with many tribes, religions and races,” he said. “If we have problems, let’s solve them peacefully.”

Jokowi also got backing from the Indonesia Scholars’ Council (MUI) and the two main Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah “to maintain unity and guard against those who want to divide the country.”

These meetings helped frame the demo not as a xenophobic rant (though much was) but as democratic expression.

The media tag of Indonesia as the world’s most populous Islamic nation suggests faith rules. However the Republic is not an Islamic state. Secular parties like the PDI-P regularly trounce faith-based contestants.

The biggest flag at the demo was a sportsfield-sized red and white. The country is stable, the leader loved. Cabinet is under control, Parliament passive and the police more professional. Jokowi has even told worried Indonesians in Sydney that Jakarta is safe.

So why no quick call on the neighbours?  Doesn’t he like us?  Or – snub supreme – maybe he thinks we’re irrelevant.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.