JAKARTA • An estimated half a million people gathered at the National Monument (Monas) in Jakarta yesterday morning to demand the arrest of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for insulting Islam.
It was the largest of three protests spearheaded by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) against Mr Basuki in as many months, and came a day after prosecutors filed blasphemy charges against him.
The protest was relatively peaceful, and included a surprise visit by President Joko Widodo and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. Despite a light drizzle, both joined in the Friday prayers, which ended the rally.
Mr Joko acknowledged that the protesters obeyed the law and maintained order. "I want to recognise the people here for following the law, which allowed this (rally) to go well," he said to the crowd. "Thank you, and each of you, please return to wherever you have come from."
The protests against Basuki have thrust the issue of race and religion to the forefront of the upcoming gubernatorial race, and turned the Feb 15 election into a test of tolerance for Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Basuki is in a three-way contest to be re-elected as governor of Jakarta. His popularity has suffered since a video clip posted online showed him telling constituents not to be misled by his opponents who cited a verse in the Quran to urge Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim like himself.
Those comments from a grassroots event in September incensed Muslim groups such as the National Fatwa Guardians of the Indonesian Ulema Council (GNPF-MUI) and FPI, which demanded the resignation of Basuki, widely known by his nickname Ahok.
FPI chairman Habib Rizieq Shihab, who led prayers at the rally, again called for Basuki to be "severely punished". His remarks appeared to fire up the crowd, who started chanting "Arrest that Ahok".
According to The Jakarta Post, about 500,000 people attended the event. The huge turnout spilled onto the streets, despite a promise to the police by the GNPF-MUI and FPI to confine the rally within the monument's grounds. Thousands who were squeezed out simply laid mats on roads and pavements to join in the prayers.
Traffic in downtown Jakarta came to a standstill from as early as 6am (7am Singapore time). The gridlock continued into the late afternoon when the crowd dispersed, leaving behind empty plastic bottles, food wrappers and other trash.
More than 20,000 security personnel were deployed in case the rally escalated into a riot, like it did on Nov 4, but a police spokesman reported no major incidents.
Some analysts see the huge turnouts as not auguring well for Mr Basuki's re-election chances.
However, recent polls show that while support for the Chinese-Christian politician has dipped slightly since he was named a suspect over alleged blasphemy about three weeks ago, he still has a fighting chance.
A recent survey showed that he remained in second place with 22 per cent of support, behind Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, a son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who leads the race with 29 per cent. In third place is former education minister Anies Baswedan, with 20 per cent.
Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said he hopes yesterday's rally would be the last as the protesters' demands have been met with Basuki set to face court action.
"Surely there will be no further action," he said.
Francis Chan and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja