Jakarta's Christian governor is facing blasphemy charges. Amidst protests against this close aide of Indonesian President Jokowi, experts say that Islamists and opposition groups are trying to destabilize the government.
For many Indonesians, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as "Ahok," is the representative of a progressive, democratic and diverse Indonesia. But for the Islamists in the country, Ahok has become a target of criticism. The 50-year old politician is a close aide of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, dubbed "Jokowi." After Jokowi was elected president in 2014, Ahok was promoted to the capital's governor.
Ahok supports the president's strict anti-drug policy and is now on the frontline against corruption. He is considered to be an energetic and assertive reformer.
"The governor is on the same page as Jokowi," Alex Flor of the Berlin-based human rights organization, Watch Indonesia, told DW. "He is adhering to the president's policies," Flor added.
Ahok will stand for a re-election in February 2017. Until a few weeks ago, his chances of extending his term looked bright. Generally speaking, he is supported by the majority of the people in Jakarta.
It is clear that Ahok's opponents are more opposed to his ethnicity and religion than to his policies. In contrast to most of the country's top politicians, Ahok is not only of Chinese origin, he is also a Christian, making him the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta in 50 years.
Islamist groups strongly disapprove of the governor and Ahok has received multiple death threats in the past few months. There were mass demonstrations during the beginning of November in Jakarta organized by the radical "Islamic Defenders Front" (FPI). More than 100,000 protesters demanded the resignation of the governor, and even his indictment for blasphemy.
The demonstration came after comments by Ahok in which he allegedly criticized the Muslim holy book, the Koran. He had quoted a Koran verse that could be interpreted as a warning against choosing a non-Muslim leader.
"If you cannot vote for me because you're afraid of being condemned to hell, you do not need to feel uneasy, as you are being fooled," said Ahok.
A wave of protests followed, finally leading to Ahok's apology. Seeing that this did not quell the demonstrations, the governor was forced to appear before the police to refute the blasphemy accusations against him. But the rebuttal did not help. This week, authorities in Jakarta confirmed that official investigations had been launched against him.
Not only could these charges lead to him losing his position as governor, if convicted, he could be sentenced to several years of imprisonment.
A political trial?
Questions remain as to whether the FPI alone was the driving force behind the protests and accusations against Ahok. It is speculated that the trial may have ulterior political motives, aimed at defaming Ahok ahead of the elections next year.
"Rumors abound that former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other opposition politicians may have sponsored the protests," said Indonesia expert Flor.
One of Yudhoyono's sons is running against Ahok in the coming gubernatorial elections. "It can't be proven, but it is possible," Flor added. "The participants in the mass demonstrations were mostly people from the rural areas. Normally, they would not care who is elected as Jakarta's governor since they don't live in the city."
A majority of Jakarta's inhabitants do not agree with the move to prosecute Ahok for blasphemy. Uhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama, the two biggest Muslim organizations in the country, have distanced themselves from the mass protests.
"Objectively speaking, these blasphemy allegations cannot be justified," Flor argued, adding that it is unlikely that Ahok will be convicted. But the case could be prolonged to force the politician to withdraw from the gubernatorial race. "It won't be much use to him if he is acquitted three weeks before the election," Flor added.
A threat to Jokowi?
President Jokowi has remained noticeably silent amidst the controversy surrounding his close aide. "The objective of the whole campaign against Ahok is to target President Jokowi, and he knows it," said Flor.
According to the expert, this is a reason why Jokovi hasn't parted ways with Jakarta's governor. Instead, Jokowi has underlined his faith in Indonesia's judicial system to execute a fair trial.
"The president has also been touring multiple police and military bases around the country to emphasize the plurality of Indonesia. This shows how deeply worried the president is that the Ahok episode could lead to a bigger political turmoil," added Flor.