Jakarta: Could The Governor Elections Change the Face of Indonesia?

As Jakarta holds elections to decide its next governor, the Indonesian capital has been rocked by religious tensions.

The incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian popularly known as Ahok, is battling Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan. After the first round of votes on February 15, Ahok is leading with 42.87 percent of the vote, while Baswedan has 39.76 per cent.

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Candidates need 50 percent share of the vote to win, so the election will now go to a second round.

Whoever is elected will control the city of more than 10 million people for five years.

Christian candidate Ahok’s campaign has been beset by allegations from Islamist hardliners that he insulted the Quran, after doctored clips of a speech he made went viral. Prosecutors eventually charged him with blasphemy and he is currently on trial.

Islamists have led violent protests against the incumbent, sparking fears of a decline in religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Protests peaked in November, when up to 200,000 marched against Ahok, and police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds. At least a dozen people were reportedly injured and one person died during the demonstration.

Newsweek takes a closer look at the election which is being seen as a “litmus test” of Indonesian Islam.

Who is Ahok?

RTX2TOVIBasuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama speaks while campaigning to be governor in the upcoming election in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 15, 2016. Darren Whiteside/REUTERS

The first non-Muslim to rule the predominantly Muslim city of Jakarta for 50 years, Ahok has held the post since 2014. As deputy governor of the city, he was automatically promoted when his predecessor, Joko Widodo, left to become president.

Ahok is claiming numerous successes over the past few years, including improving the city’s spatial planning to reduce traffic jams, building better flood defenses and introducing a number of affordable housing options. He has also worked with 44 hospitals to provide treatment for the poorest members of society.

“Many rivers have been cleaned. You can see that major rivers have been cleansed of rubbish. You can make a comparison after I leave the city administration,” Ahok told the Jakarta Post.

Ahok’s re-election seemed certain until last September, when he told fishermen they should not be misled by Islamist leaders preaching that the Quran forbids Muslims from being governed by non-Muslims.

A Facebook user, Buni Yani, allegedly uploaded the speech to his profile with serious edits, so it appeared as though Ahok was saying the Quran was misleading, rather than religious leaders. Yani now faces hate-speech charges, and if convicted, could face up to six years in prison.

But thousands raged against Ahok, and a poll suggests that more than 45 percent of Indonesians thought what he said was blasphemous. He went on trial on December 16, and has appeared in court once a week as the trial continues. If found guilty, he could could face up to five years in jail. Indonesia has strict blasphemy laws dating from 1965, which means people can be jailed for saying they are atheists.

Ahok’s success in the first round however, suggests he may triumph despite the Islamists’ accusations, which his supporters maintain are false and politically motivated.

Who is Ahok’s opponent?

RTSYQ5TFormer education minister Anies Baswedan (right) with his wife Fery Farhati Ganis and his daughter Mutiara Annisa Baswedan. They show their fingers during an election for Jakarta's governor in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 15. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/Reuters

Former education minister Anies Basweden has appealed mainly to Muslim voters living in slum dwellings. He has criticized the status quo, claiming Ahok focuses only on physical development—for example housing and general infrastructure—rather than human development, citing the disparity between rich and poor as Jakarta’s largest problem. Basweden has made campaign promises to create more jobs and develop educational opportunities for the poorest students.

Another Muslim candidate stood in the first round—Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is now out of the race after getting 17.37 percent of the vote. Representing the center-right Democratic Party, he opposed the anti-Ahok protests, and warned the government not to be swayed by hardliners. “Don’t let a third party take advantage of the situation, and don’t let radical and extremist groups show up so they can take advantage,” he told the Jakarta Post.

What does this mean for Indonesia?

Indonesia has long been considered a relatively moderate Muslim country, albeit with pockets of hardline Islam. But Ahok’s blasphemy charges and the protests against him have raised concerns that hardline groups are gaining greater influence and eroding religious tolerance.

"Jakarta will be led by a Muslim leader who submits to the will of Allah," a speaker, Maulana Kamal Yusuf, told a crowd at the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta in February before the first round of the polls, urging supporters not to vote for Alok. “Jakarta will be a religious city."

85 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, while the rest identify as Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians.

What’s next?

Official results are not expected until the final run-off in mid-April.

The likelihood of future protests turning into serious and widespread unrest is small. Jakarta has been led by Ahok for the last three years and there has always been an undercurrent of tension from more hardline groups, but until the accusation of blasphemy, hostilities had never escalated.

“There will not be a civil war, absolutely not,” Ben Murtagh, Head of the Department of South East Asia at SOAS, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told Newsweek.

“For Ahok to win he will need more than 50 percent of the vote, so that’s a sizeable number of Muslims who will be voting. There may well be discontent from a minority who are already unhappy, but I don’t think that means people will go out on the streets. It’s a fair, democratic process. The vast majority of people are not participating in these demonstrations. They [the group protesting] are small, but extremely vocal.”

The spanner in the works for Ahok is that even if he does beat Baswedan, he could be jailed if found guilty of blasphemy, in which case there may need to be a re-election. In Indonesian legal history, most blasphemy cases lead to conviction.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers


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