A vote for radicalism in Indonesia

Jakarta's gubernatorial election result left Islamic conservatives cheered and defeated secularists worried about the future direction of the country

Jakarta, April 20, 2017 10:50 AM (UTC+8)
Former Indonesian education minister Anies Baswedan (C) holds the hand of Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto (R) as Baswedan running mate Sandiaga Uno (L) talks to reporters after voting in the Jakarta governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Former Indonesian education minister Anies Baswedan (C) holds the hand of Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto (R) as Baswedan running mate Sandiaga Uno (L) talks to reporters after voting in the Jakarta governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Former education minister Anies Baswedan pulled off a stunning victory over ethnic-Chinese Christian incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Purnama Jakarta’s highly anticipated gubernatorial election. The preliminary result left Islamic conservatives cheering and secularists wringing their hands over the future direction of the country.

Quick count results varied, with the respected Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) putting Baswedan and running mate Sandiaga Uno well ahead by 58.5% to 41.9% and the Indonesia Survey Institute (LSI) scoring it 55.4% to 44.5%. Official results will be known on May 1.

Polls had the two candidates running neck-and-neck in a survey taken earlier this month, but in the end it wasn’t even close with Purnama going backwards from his 42.9%-40% win in the three-way, first round election in February.

The polls, though, were correct in one aspect. In February, despite even more being satisfied with his performance as governor, 57% of capital city residents said they believed Purnama was guilty of the blasphemy charges brought against him last October. That is almost the same percentage of those who voted against him on Wednesday.

Incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama holds up his ballot before casting his vote in the Jakarta governor election in North Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTS12V58
Incumbent governor Basuki “’Ahok’” Tjahaja Purnama holds up his ballot before casting his vote in the Jakarta governor election in North Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Indeed, the margin of Baswedan’s victory meant Purnama failed to pick up any of the votes of Agus Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who, like Baswedan, had built his campaign around Purnama’s ongoing blasphemy trial and the religious undercurrents that have intensified over the past four months.

A US-educated academician who has only turned to politics in the last three years, Baswedan, 47, had the political backing of former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), which form the parliamentary opposition.

He also had the support of two other individual heavy-hitters — one-time Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie, Uno’s business mentor, and Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese media and financial services tycoon who is partnering with US President Donald Trump in a swank Bali golf resort development.

Now the head of the newly-formed United Indonesia Party, Tanoesoedibjo has often said he has been inspired by Trump and may try to run for the Indonesian presidency. After watching the fate of Purnama, who is widely perceived to have performed well as Jakarta’s governor, he may now have second thoughts.

Baswedan’s margin of victory will raise new questions about Indonesia’s much-vaunted reputation for religious tolerance and, more importantly, how it might embolden hardline Islamic splinter groups who led the fight to convince fellow Muslims they should not vote for a non-Muslim leader.

Supporters of Jakarta governor candidate Anies Baswedan react as Baswedan leads the count at the Petamburan flat polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta - RTS12WSK
Supporters of Jakarta governor candidate Anies Baswedan react as Baswedan leads the count at the Petamburan flat polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Political analyst Marcus Mietzner says moderate Muslims, who would not have paid attention to Purnama’s allegedly blasphemous remarks, were successfully convinced by what he called a “relentless grassroots, mosque-based campaign” that the governor was unelectable.

“This victory is not simply about Anies..being backed by radicalism,” said Alissa Wahid, daughter of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, whose death in 2009 left Indonesia without a pluralist leader of any stature. “It is about radical groups becoming stronger and more convinced that pressure is useful and productive.”

General Tito Karnavian, president Joko Widodo’s hand-picked national police chief, banned all mass organizations from mobilizing members at the city’s 13,000 polling stations in a successful move to prevent radicals from carrying through with their threat to “monitor” the election.

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical group, had earlier called on followers across Java to flood the capital, sparking fears of intimidation and a violent reaction to a possible Purnama victory. Whether that had an impact on the final showdown is not clear, but religion was a far more important factor than everyday issues.

In many ways, the problem with figuring out the mind of Indonesia’s silent majority is just that – it is silent. In this case, there may well have been concerns about the prospect of five years of street disturbances and a trial verdict that could have disqualified Purnama from assuming office anyway.

An election official counts ballots during the counting process after polls closed in the governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta - RTS12WWM
An election official counts ballots during the counting process after polls closed in the governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta.

What may have also been forgotten is that the silent majority includes the under-privileged, many of whom lost their dwellings in Purnama’s tough-minded efforts to clear the banks of Jakarta’s rivers to prevent perennial flooding.

“The outcome of the election is quite odd to me, but I don’t have any evidence to think there was something funny going on,” said one electoral expert, pointing to results which show Purnama and running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat losing 1%-2% across almost every district of the capital.

That might have been expected earlier in the election campaign when a conservative Islamic coalition drew impressive 100,000-200,000 crowds to two anti-Purnama rallies in downtown Jakarta. But it was generally believed a moderate Muslim backlash in recent months had mitigated the effects of a hardline backlash.

Whether the same dynamics will be played out during the 2019 legislative and presidential elections is questionable. While there has been a Muslim revival since the dawn of the democratic era, Sharia-based parties have historically won only 12%-14% of the national vote. If that begins to shift, then it will signal something much bigger.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo could bring temporary stress relief to Australia's Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
Indonesian President Joko Widodo remains popular in the provinces. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The election outcome will be worrying all the same for Widodo, whose ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) had supported Purnama’s re-election bid, but whose organizational frailties, which almost cost him the presidency in 2014, were not up to the task.

The prominent role PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri played in the campaign clearly made little difference to the governor’s chances and may convince the ex-president that now is the time to step down, as she has hinted in recent weeks.

Nor did former president Yudhoyono’s much-publicized visit to the presidential palace in February have any impact, even if some analysts thought the awkward tea-and-cakes reunion would persuade those who voted for his son to swing their support behind Purnama.

But Widodo can take some comfort from the fact that Jakarta’s importance as the nation’s capital and major commercial center counts for little in national elections when personal popularity is everything – and so are the votes from his birthplace in the populous Java hinterland where the self-effacing president is apparently as popular as ever.

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