“Ahok Defeat Signals Shifting Islamic Grounds” by Charlotte Setijadi

2017/18, 24 April 2017

Incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (affectionately known as Ahok) has been decisively defeated in the Jakarta gubernatorial run-off election that took place on Wednesday, 19 April. While the formal result from the Jakarta Electoral Commission is still pending for another month, quick count exit polls from various polling institutions showed that former education minister Anies Baswedan and entrepreneur running mate Sandiaga Uno have won a landslide victory after securing 58 percent of the votes compared to Ahok and running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat’s 42 percent. This result is a disappointing end for Ahok and his loyal supporters in what has been one of the most controversial, widely-covered, and agenda defining elections in contemporary Indonesia.

Much of the Jakarta election was fought along religious lines following the now infamous blasphemy allegation against Ahok that began in October last year (the trial is still on-going). Hardline Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) organised massive street protests and staged a very effective smear campaign based on the rhetoric that a vote for Ahok is a vote against Islam. While never directly attacking Ahok for blasphemy, his opponent Mr Baswedan, who is backed by Jokowi rival and presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto, aligned himself with the hardliners in a move designed to appeal to conservative Muslim voters.

Ahok’s defeat showed that the strategy of stirring up religious – and to a lesser extent, racial – sentiments had worked. This is a big blow for the state of pluralism in Indonesia. Politically, Ahok’s defeat is a major blow for close ally president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, himself a symbol for secular governance.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ahok’s defeat was the large margin by which Mr Baswedan was able to win. Most analysts had predicted a very tight race or even a stalemate. Such a landslide victory for Mr Baswedan indicates that religion and race played a much more important role in determining voting behaviour than previously thought. It also shows that the ground of Islamic politics in the Indonesian capital is shifting rapidly.

Ahok lost the election despite last-minute endorsements by moderate Islamic parties PKB (National Awakening Party) and PPP (Development United Party). Furthermore, while it was expected that most Muslim voters who had previously voted for defeated first-round candidate Agus Yudhoyono would swing towards Mr Baswedan, it was thought that at least a proportion of moderate Muslims would rather vote for Ahok rather than align themselves with Islamic hardliners. Ahok’s campaign had evidently failed to compete with the powerful divisive rhetoric spread by conservative Muslim factions that targeted Jakarta’s usually tolerant moderate Muslim population.

The hardliners’ successful politicisation of the blasphemy case showed that conservative Islamist factions have become better organized, funded and politically connected, thus increasing their capacity to mobilise at key junctures such as important elections.

Jakarta sets the trend for the rest of the nation, so this election sets an alarming precedent, particularly for the 2019 presidential election. Jokowi must now ready himself for religion and race to play a much more prominent role in future campaigns and political attacks. Mr Baswedan’s backer Prabowo Subianto will undoubtedly try to use the Islamist momentum to his advantage, although this would be a very dangerous strategy. Moving forward, all political players must take into serious consideration the increasing capacity and influence of sectarian Islamist groups at the national level.

Dr Charlotte Setijadi is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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