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A turning point for Indonesia

Christina Schott Jakarta
April 20, 2017

The Indonesian capital's sitting Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, has conceded defeat in an election seen as a test for pluralism in the world's largest Muslim country. Christina Schott reports from Jakarta.

Indonesien Jakarta Wahlen
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Syuflana

"I honestly didn't know who to vote for," said Ivana Lee, a 32-year-old teacher in Jakarta who didn't cast a ballot. "One candidate is supported by Islamists. The other pushes the poor out. So I stayed home."

Lee has worked for years with Ciliwung Merdeka (Free Ciliwung), a community organization in the slums along Jakarta's Ciliwung River. The organization and 440 families were forced to relocate due to a water control project implemented under Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok.

"Many of us here are still waiting for the promised relocation housing," Lee said. "So they voted for Ahok's opponent."

That opponent is Anies Baswedan, the country's former education minister. With private polls handing him a resounding victory in the election, he has been declared Jakarta's next governor. Official results are expected in May.

Indenosien Wahlen Anies Baswedan
Election winner Anies BaswedanImage: picture alliance/Zumapress/D. Pohan

The relocation played a minor role in the campaign, as did Ahok's anticorruption efforts and successes on infrastructure, education and health.

Background and belief

Ahok's religion was a more dominant factor: As a Christian belonging to a Chinese minority, many Islamic organizations viewed him unfit to govern the capital of the largest Muslim country in the world.

"This election is a test of Indonesian pluralism's ability to stand up to the pressure from religious groups and populists," said Wimar Witoelar, a political analyst and campaign advisor to former President Abdurrahman Wahid, ahead of the election. Not only Jakarta, but all of "Indonesia is at a turning point."

The multiethnic state has in some ways been a model of religious tolerance. Yet since the beginning of democratization in 1998, radical Islamic groups have asserted increasing political influence. Provinces have enacted Sharia, or Islamic law, to the detriment of religious minorities. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical Islamic group, carried out massive demonstrations in 2012 against Ahok for becoming the running mate to Joko Widodo in the Jakarta gubernatorial election. Widodo, known as Jokowi, went on to win. Ahok took over as governor when Jokowi was elected the country's president in 2014.

Indonesien Jakarta Demonstration von Islamisten
Jakarta saw mass protests against its governor in 2016Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Ibrahim

Blasphemy accusations

Ahok is currently on trial for blasphemy. At an event in September, he cautioned voters not to be swayed by claims that the Koran prohibits voting for non-Muslims. The statement was twisted in social media, with FPI taking to the streets of Jakarta claiming Ahok had insulted the Islamic holy book.

Opponents seized on the opportunity to bring down a then-popular governor. Anies Baswedan, a former university rector and moderate intellectual, donned more traditional Muslim clothing and courted FPI's Habib Rizieq, who has been repeatedly cited for incitement and other offenses.

Jakarta Muslime protestieren gegen christlichen Gouverneur  Basuki Tjahaja Purnama
Ahok is on trial for blasphemyImage: Reuters/B. Indahono/Pool

Baswedan had supported Jokowi's bid for president and was awarded the education ministry in return. He lost his job in 2016 amid accusations of corruption.

Jakarta's governor's race can be viewed as a bellwether of sorts for the country's next presidential election in 2019. "Baswedan's victory is a risk for the state government," said Tobias Basuki of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "He represents Gerindra, the party of Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi's rival, who presumably wants to run in 2019. Controlling Jakarta means the party can block Jokowi every step of the way."

Subianto, who narrowly lost to Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election, threw his support behind Baswedan and is expected to challenge for the presidency again.