Speaking Of Asia

Jakarta election: Key turn in the road for Indonesia

Post-Jakarta polls, Indonesians need to look within and decide what sort of nation they want

Perhaps the best you could say about Indonesia's gubernatorial election is that it is over, finally.

Since last October, Jakarta, capital of the archipelagic nation of 225 million, has witnessed occasional paralysis as various hardline Islamist groups joined to rally against Ahok, the name by which everyone knows Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the incumbent governor running for re-election.

An ethnic Chinese and Christian, Basuki has the distinction of being in the minority twice over in his sprawling nation. Add abrasiveness and efficiency to the composite personality in a land where neither quality is particularly valued - indeed, abrasiveness is positively abhorrent to Javanese - and you know why Basuki arouses more than ordinary passion.

As for efficiency, among the squatters he has evicted from illegally occupied state land are those who were some of his fervent supporters when he first ran for office in 2012 as deputy to the charismatic Joko Widodo, who was elevated to the presidency, thus pitch-forking his deputy into the Governor's Office that he unsuccessfully sought to retain.

It is not that Jakarta, which has grown to a city of nearly 10 million people, hasn't had a Christian governor before. The late president Sukarno appointed the Manado-born painter Henk Ngantung to the post in 1964. Basuki's problem is that unlike Mr Joko, his taciturn mentor, he has sometimes led with his lips. This provided grist to the mills of those who seek to paint him as anti-Islam and a non-believer who scoffs at the faith.

Unsettled by the religion-based opposition unleashed by the Islamists, Mr Joko initially seemed uncertain on how to deal with the issue for months. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that he put his presidential heft behind his ally, pressuring moderate groups like Nahdlatul Ulama to line up behind Basuki. It would prove a case of too little too late. While the official result will take at least another week, Basuki's conceded defeat after quick counts showed a decisive win for Mr Anies Baswedan.



Indonesia's politicians have often used the religious card during election time. During the last presidential polls, Mr Joko himself was falsely accused of being the son of a Christian mother. Once the polls were over, though, things tended to drift back to the mainstream, moderate interpretation of the faith that most Muslims in the country are comfortable with. The Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Muslim organisation in the country, counts more than 90 million members and in the past nine decades has stood against the fundamentalist Islam radiating from Saudi Arabia.

But so riven is the political mood in Indonesia today that even Basuki's handshake with the visiting King Salman of Saudi Arabia was decried as a hoax on social media by enemies who feared the vast Muslim electorate would see it as the Saudi ruler's endorsement of him. Anti-Ahok groups have sought to popularise the notion that it is haram for the king to shake hands with an alleged blasphemer. That is the charge Basuki has faced since he lightheartedly criticised hardline Islamist groups that sought to use religion to block his re-election bid.

Because it is the nation with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia has always been eyed as a prize catch but successive rulers from founding father Sukarno all the way to Mr Joko have preferred to steer a middle path that preserves the country's unique Islamic traditions and belief in pluralism. Indonesia has six officially recognised religions including Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, while more than 87 per cent are listed as Muslims, predominantly Sunni.

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of Indonesian Islam than the tradition of Perang Topat on Lombok island where Muslims and Hindus gather together in an annual ritual to give thanks to God. Rather than trade missiles, the two communities assemble to fling ketupat at each other, underscoring how repulsive communal antagonism is to the common man. Even here, taking aim at the head with the rice cake is strictly frowned upon.

This is the Indonesia that has caught the imagination of a world increasingly obsessed with Islamist militancy, a lot of it blamed on Saudi money to spread the Salafi brand of Islam. It is an Indonesia worth preserving. Mr Joko knows this and has not shown much inclination to think another way, whatever blandishments may have been offered to him to nudge his nation towards a more fundamentalist path. Hence his wry comment that the visiting Saudi king, custodian of Sunni Islam's most revered holy places, didn't open his pocket book wide enough when it came to investments in Indonesia despite Mr Joko shielding him from the rain with his own umbrella.

Others seem to recognise that as well. The support for Basuki from Nahdlatul Ulama came despite most of its leadership having a well-known distaste for his personality. Even Mr Anies probably realises that his dalliance with the hardline groups has come at a price: it put off two of the biggest Islamic parties, PPP and National Awakening Party, which lent their backing to Basuki.


Unquestionably though, the sustained campaigning by Islamist hardliners, including propaganda that those who vote for Ahok will be denied burial plots, has affected the election and the national sentiment. Surveys by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting, a Jakarta firm, have shown that the proportion of Muslims agreeing that Muslims should not be ruled by a non-Muslim had risen from 45 per cent last October to as high as 65 per cent today. Thus, Basuki, who led the first round of polling in February, was pushed down far enough to lose the run-off.

For Mr Anies, this may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. He will have to now work with Mr Joko, who is unlikely to forget that Mr Anies was his Cabinet underling as education minister as well as a potential challenger to his own position. He will also labour under the shadow of being a patsy for Mr Prabowo Subianto, a controversial special forces general and son-in-law of late president Suharto, who is thought to have bankrolled the campaign.

One possible outcome could be that the Anies victory will galvanise the pluralists into acting to preserve what they've cherished for so long. That would be a welcome development. It would be a pity if Indonesia were to go down the path of Mr Narendra Modi's India or Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's Myanmar, where the majority community is encouraged to believe and act as though it is under siege. Indonesia's pluralism not only is a strength for itself but for all of South-east Asia. It wasn't too long ago that General Benny Murdani, a Christian who rose to be one of Indonesia's most powerful military chiefs, held office.

Perhaps Indonesia will never be quite the same after this election. After all, the cynical tactics used against Basuki did prove effective in the end. The Jakarta Post editorial board called it "the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive" campaign the nation had ever seen.

That said, aside from the fake news, frenzied social media campaigns and street protests that preceded the two rounds of voting, this was an election that in some ways had a different colour from the usual elite-dominated campaigns. The promptness with which people of all persuasions sought to report instances of money politics to Bawaslu, the election watchdog, is indicative of a new political awareness sweeping the land.

For the moment, Indonesians can be relieved that they can look beyond the tough choices the election forced on them.

In the longer term, they will need to look within themselves and decide what sort of a nation they want to live in.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2017, with the headline Jakarta election: Key turn in the road for Indonesia. Subscribe