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Indonesia Analysis

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Jakarta election will gauge political influence of Islam

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Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama speaks while campaigning for the upcoming election for governor in Jakarta, Indonesia November 15, 2016. Reuters/路透社

In Indonesia, some seven million people are eligible to vote Wednesday in elections for governorship of the capital Jakarta. Against the backdrop of a blasphemy trial against the current governor, the vote is seen as a test for religion’s role in the politics of a country with both the world’s largest Muslim population and a long tradition of pluralism.


Incumbent governor Basuki Tsahaja Purnama, commonly known by his Chinese name Ahok, is a Christian from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority who took over after former governor Joko Widodo became president.

Ahok’s trial for allegedly offending Islam came about after a public campaign that culminated in a march of up to half a million people.

But if the two other candidates, Aness Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, have sought to channel that opposition to their advantage, it is largely because they have been hard up to criticise Ahok’s performance in office.

“If you look at the latest survey, 75 percent of people of Jakarta approve of what he has been doing, so the only way to attack him is through religion,” says political analyst Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst at Jenderal Achmad Yani University in Cimahi.

That however has not stopped the campaign from taking on a heated tone.

“The campaign has been linked to the idea that as a good Muslim, you cannot pick a Christian, you cannot pick someone who is not a Muslim,” Sulaiman explains.

“In the case of Anies Baswedan, he’s built his career on the idea that he is a moderate Muslim, he’s the new face of Muslim people, he’s handsome, he’s an intellectual.

"He visited the Muslim vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front, which is very well known for attacking Christians and people who are not fasting during Ramadan, and in their meeting he affirmed that as a good Muslim you cannot choose a Christian. And so he’s appealing to the worst instinct, basically.”

Polls indicate this brand of campaign appears to have narrowed Ahok’s lead over the other candidates, without ruling out the strong possibility he will be re-elected for another term.

At this point, observers also caution against seeing it as evidence of any newfound influence of hard-line Islamic groups.

“The election will be a strong litmus test of Indonesian Islam in the broader perspective, nationally, but represented in Jakarta, whether religion politicised at this level can make or break an election or not,” says Tobias Basuki, researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, who predicts Ahok will win the election.

“The basic fabric of Indonesian society and Islam is very much pluralistic and open and tolerant, so the battle is the discourse,” he says. “Islamist groups represent a very small number of the Indonesian population, and most often are influenced from outside of Indonesia. So this election and political brouhaha surrounding the alleged blasphemy, is only in a small percentage truly about ideology and religion.”

Religion and politics also have a long history of approaching and receding in Indonesia, and while Islamic parties are present, their influence is in the minority.

“Islamic parties only got about 30 percent of the vote in the last national election, and this is a country that is 88 percent Muslim, so a great many Muslims are not voting for Islamic parties,” says Greg Fealy, associate professor of politics and director of the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs at Australian National University.

“There are times when we see spikes in this religious, particularly Islamic sentiment, this Jakarta election has been one of those,” says Fealy, who also argues the Jakarta election must be seen for its particularities.

“Ahok is a very abrasive, polarising, outspoken governor,” Fealy says. “He achieves a lot, but he also upsets a lot of people as he’s doing it, and the Islamic community is one community that is quite unhappy with him. Not everyone, but perhaps enough to make a difference come election day.”

Not everyone sees the campaign as boding particularly well for the future, however.

“If Ahok wins, many people would make the argument that Joko Widodo helped him, so there would be more opposition,” Sulaiman suggests.

“But at the same time, if Ahok loses, those people will say it’s working, religious attacks are working, so they will keep using it.”

If none of the candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote on Wednesday, a second round will be organised on 19 April.