Jakarta’s gubernatorial election is second only to the national presidential polls in terms of political significance as it points towards the country’s likely future direction. The 2017 poll pitted an incumbent, and by Indonesian standards, unconventional governor against well-resourced, establishment-backed candidates. The outcome reflected darker and troubling echoes of the country’s past, with the twin axes of faith and ethnicity openly deployed in a successful bid to promote the winning candidate.
The election campaign opened on 21 September 2016 with then Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, invariably referred to by his nickname ‘Ahok,’ registering his candidacy for the February 2017 gubernatorial elections. Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian and close ally of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo – himself a former Jakarta governor – had proved an effective, if at times ruthless, administrator of the sprawling capital beset with myriad structural, social and environmental problems.
This concentration of voting power makes political control of Jakarta and its satellites an essential prize for any party or faction with ambitions to rule the country.
Jakarta has a population of at least 10 million people and forms the core of a huge urban area which encompasses four other major conurbations – Bekasi, Bogor, Depok and Tangerang – often referred to by the acronym ‘Jabodetabek’ and home to around 30 million out of Indonesia’s 260 million population. This concentration of voting power, coupled with the region’s huge economic potential, makes political control of Jakarta and its satellites an essential prize for any party or faction with ambitions to rule the country.
Barely a week after Purnama registered his intention to seek a second term, he helped create a controversy which would prove to be his nemesis six months later. On 27 September Purnama addressed a gathering in the Kepulauan Seribu (Thousand Islands) regency off Jakarta’s coast. In reference to opposition from Islamists to his candidacy due to his ethnicity and religion, he cited the Koranic verse Surah Al-Maida 5:51-56 which had been used to attempt to convince Muslims not to vote for him. The verse may be translated as: O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.
On 6 October, after an edited video of Purnama’s Kepulauan Seribu gathering was posted on social media, the leader of the well-connected and hardline group, Islam Defenders Front (FPI), reported him to the police on the basis religious defamation. Purnama’s efforts at apology for citing the Koran failed to prevent the powerful Muslim clerical body, Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), declaring on 11 October that he had blasphemed by referring to the Al-Maida verse. On 14 October large and well-organised rallies were held in Jakarta, Surabaya (East Java) and Bandung (West Java), where Muslim protesters demanded Purnama be imprisoned for the alleged blasphemy.
On 28 October the campaign period for the 11 February Jakarta elections officially began amid rising tensions over Purnama’s alleged blasphemy. He was challenged by former education minister Anies Baswedan, who was backed by Prabowo Subianto – a former general and son-in-law of the late president Suharto – and Agus Yudhoyono – the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. On 4 November a huge rally in Jakarta organised by the FPI and other hardline and conservative Islamist groups demanded Purnama be prosecuted for blasphemy. Scattered violence further heightened tension and added to pressure on the authorities to put Purnama on trial. His blasphemy trial opened in a Jakarta court on 13 December, where he tearfully denied intending to insult the Koran.
Scattered violence further heightened tension and added to pressure on the authorities to put Purnama on trial
The trial clearly had a major impact on Purnama’s ability to campaign, but despite further largely peaceful street protests in Jakarta, he won the first round of the election on 15 February securing around 43 per cent of the vote against Baswedan’s 40 per cent and Yudhoyono’s 17 per cent.
The campaign for the second and final round of the election was marked by an increased emphasis on faith and race, all directed against Purnama and by extension the country’s ethnic Chinese and Christian communities. While there were no specific instances of violence against either group – often united in the same individual – intercommunal tensions rose in response which are based on historical parallels where internal divisions within the elite have led to such minorities being targeted. Under these circumstances, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Baswedan won the election with 58 per cent of the votes against Purnama’s 42 per cent.