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Divisive politics and discontent of urban poor factors behind Jakarta unrest

Like so many conflicts before it, this one started with a seemingly innocuous comment. On Sept 26, incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as "Ahok") told a small crowd in Jakarta's Thousand Islands Regency not to be "fooled" by those who say that it would be a sin for a Muslim to vote for a non-Muslim leader. Referring specifically to Verse 51 Al-Maidah of the Quran, Ahok said that voters should follow their guts when voting and not be influenced by religious provocation.

This comment may have gone unnoticed if someone else in different political circumstances had said it. However, Ahok is an ethnic Chinese and a Christian, the first "double minority" to be elected to Jakarta's top office.

Ahok has a sharp tongue and is known for his tough city management policies, such as the swift evictions in Jakarta's slum areas. Ahok is also currently running for governor in Jakarta's upcoming provincial elections to be held on Feb 15 next year. Rather than attacking his policies, Ahok's political opponents have frequently attacked his ethnicity and religion.

When footage of his comment went viral on social media, his opponents got the loaded gun they had been waiting for.

What resulted was one of the biggest mass demonstrations in Indonesia's recent memory where, after Friday midday prayers last week, approximately 150,000 Muslims took to the main streets of downtown Jakarta to demand Ahok's prosecution for blasphemy against Islam.

Jakarta is used to almost daily demonstrations, but for weeks in the lead-up to this one, the city was gripped by uncharacteristic fear, not least because the rhetoric surrounding the demonstration became increasingly racist and violent in tone.

Muslim hardliners clashing with anti-riot policemen during a protest against Jakarta's ethnic Chinese Christian governor, Mr Basuki, last Friday.
Muslim hardliners clashing with anti-riot policemen during a protest against Jakarta's ethnic Chinese Christian governor, Mr Basuki, last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Banners inciting anti-Chinese violence popped up around the city, invoking painful memories of the May 1998 riots, particularly for the city's ethnic Chinese population.

Organised by Islamic vigilante organisation the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), together with a number of other hardline Islamist groups, what began as a relatively peaceful demonstration quickly turned violent when protesters refused to disperse following news that President Joko Widodo had declined to meet them.

Neither Ahok's public apology, a message for calm from moderate Muslim leaders, nor Mr Joko's assurance of due judicial process for the blasphemy investigation were enough to calm the increasingly violent protesters.

Occupying the front of the State Palace and the Parliament House, violent mobs looted mini-markets, burned parked cars, and threatened to attack the Chinese-majority residential complex where Ahok and his family live.

On Saturday morning, as the protesters slowly dispersed and the city's cleaners cleared away the mess from Friday's violence, Jakartans were left reflecting upon the gravity of what had happened and what the future holds amid fears that the next few months of the gubernatorial campaign may be marred by more sectarian and xenophobic violence.

The truth is, while it would be easy to simplify the demonstration as an anti-blasphemy or even as an anti-Chinese protest, the political and socio-economic contexts of Friday's mass mobilisation tell a more complex story.

For the FPI as the main motor behind the demonstration, the public outrage following Ahok's Al-Maidah comment gave them the perfect opportunity for a show of force and intimidation. Ever since taking office - first as vice-governor in 2012 and then governor in 2014 following Mr Joko's ascendance to the presidency - Ahok has been the only politician brave enough to publicly demand the disbanding of the small but influential Islamic vigilante group.

So far, the FPI has been very successful in appealing to Jakarta's urban poor. However, for many, much of this has less to do with Islamic piety and more to do with the urban poor's anger towards Ahok's aggressive campaign of forced evictions and displacements.

Among these largely forgotten urban poor, conspiracy theories of ethnic Chinese developers pulling the strings behind Ahok's eviction policies have found fertile ground. In this already hostile environment, rumours of Ahok's alleged insult to the Quran were the final straw.

Ahok has done the right thing by submitting himself to due judicial process on the blasphemy accusation. In the future, he would also be wise to show more empathy in listening to the urban poor.

This entire issue must also be seen as part of a greater power play among the higher echelons of Indonesian politics. With the major political parties treating the all-important Jakarta gubernatorial election as an initial battleground in the lead-up to the 2019 presidential election, an attack towards Mr Joko's ally Ahok is also an attack towards Mr Joko's credibility and strength as a leader.

Mr Joko himself has drawn attention to this fact, stating on Saturday morning that various "political actors" have opportunistically used the Friday demonstration to achieve their own political ends.

Friday's mass demonstration was the product of longstanding religious, class, ethnic, and political power struggles, packaged together in dangerous hate speech by those who understand the potency of xenophobic rhetoric in Indonesia.

It presents the sobering reality that despite almost two decades of reform, religious and anti-Chinese sentiment still provides convenient rallying points for angry mobs in times of political instability.

Ahok has done the right thing by submitting himself to due judicial process on the blasphemy accusation. In the future, he would also be wise to show more empathy in listening to the urban poor.

On their part, Mr Joko and his government need to be much tougher in dealing with racist and religious attacks towards public office-holders and in society more generally.

This is especially so in the coming months as Jakarta and over 100 other regional areas prepare for simultaneous direct regional elections in February next year.

•The author is a visiting fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Big party politics and discontent of urban poor behind Jakarta unrest'. Print Edition | Subscribe