Jakarta Election Puts Indonesia’s Religious Tolerance To The Test

Indonesia is going through what many parts of the world is experiencing when it comes to politics. People are divided by emotions rather than concrete policy outcomes

Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama on February 4, 2017. — REUTERS
Feb 17, 2017 at 2:00 PM ET

The capital city of the largest Muslim country in the world went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a governor. The race, set to be determined by a later run-off, is considered not only a heated political contest, but a crucial “litmus test” for Indonesia’s pluralism and tolerance.

Incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian better known by his nickname “Ahok,” edged out Anies Baswedan, a Muslim former education minister. Ahok has a little over 43 percent of the vote, compared to Baswedan’s 40.14 percent, according to quick count surveys. A candidate needs to secure more than 50 percent of the vote in round one to claim victory, which means the election will see a second-round run-off in April most likely.

The Jakarta vote could represent something larger than a governor’s race: experts say some see it as a potential turning point for Indonesia as a whole, as the country’s pluralism and tolerance are put to the test.

“This election has been framed as a Muslim versus non-Muslim by opponents of Ahok,” Yohanes Sulaiman, an independent Indonesian politics and security expert, told Vocativ in an email. “As a result, this election is no longer a referendum on whether Ahok has done a good job as a governor, but whether a Muslim can choose a non-Muslim. And this can be used by vigilante groups as a way to terrorize other religions/sects or to simply cause trouble.”

Ahok has cracked down on corruption and has championed infrastructure development, among other things, but all of that has been overshadowed by an election mired in religious and ethnic tensions. Opponents are quick to point out that Ahok ascended to Jakarta’s governorship on a technicality, since he was deputy to former Governor Joko Widodo and assumed the position only after Widodo was elected president in 2014.

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Sulaiman added that the election has in many ways pushed some fringe and radical elements of Indonesian society toward the political mainstream (sound familiar, America?). For instance, Baswedan, who was at one time lauded as a sensible moderate, met with a group of hardliners in the run-up to the election. The move was derided by many Indonesians, but also demonstrated the growing strength of fundamentalists.

“He is consolidating his support among Muslims and courting radicals, which is basically a go-for-broke action, because he is basically throwing away his reputation as a moderate technocrat,” Sulaiman said. “Understandable, but it is a shame.”

Prior to the election, Ahok was mired in a blasphemy case for allegedly insulting the Quran after he quoted a passage on how Muslims vote. Combined with long-standing prejudices against Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, the charges paved the way for other (Muslim) challengers to contest his position, including Baswedan and Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Indonesia, a nation where 86 percent of the 250 million citizens are Muslim, has historically practiced a moderate form of the faith, hardliners are steadily gaining ground, and the charges against Ahok exemplify this increasing religiosity.

Ross Tapsell, an Indonesia researcher at Australia National University College of Asia and the Pacific, stopped short of calling the election a litmus test, but he did note the growing role of hardliners in Indonesia’s political sphere. “What we have seen in this election is conservative Islamic groups play a more central role, in part because they have been mobilized by elite political party forces in the campaign, but also because they have managed to mobilize huge numbers of people on the ground, numbers which we haven’t seen in Indonesia for around 20 years,” he told Vocativ in an email.

Tapsell said that Indonesia is going through its own version of what’s going on elsewhere, in which people are divided by emotions rather than concrete policy outcomes. “Much of the campaign against Ahok has not been attacking his policies, given he had an approval rating of 75 percent, but rather to argue that a non-muslim is not suitable to lead in Indonesia,” he said. “His opponents have sanctioned this view. Like in the U.S., the election has been high on social media sentiment spread via ‘echo chambers’ and small on direct policy outcomes.”