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Christian mayor defeated by Islamist

05 May 2017

Recent elections in Indonesia suggest that Islamists are in the ascendant, says Peter Riddell


Divisive: an Indonesian Muslim shouts a slogan to call for maximum punishment to be imposed on Basuki “Ahok” Purnama during his blasphemy trial in North Jakarta, last Friday

Divisive: an Indonesian Muslim shouts a slogan to call for maximum punishment to be imposed on Basuki “Ahok” Purnama during his blasphemy ...

THE eight-month process of electing a new Mayor for Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is over. It has been an agonising and tumultuous period. The victory of Anies Baswedan over the incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, in the elections held on 19 April, is a clear result: the former appears to have garnered 58 per cent of the vote.

his victory comes at the expense of social stability in Jakarta, and sets the stage for a much bigger electoral campaign: the Indonesian presidency, scheduled for 2019, in the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world.

Mr Purnama, the first Christian Mayor of Jakarta, who represents the country’s Chinese minority, had been dogged by opposition from radical Islamist groups since his assumption of the position of mayor in 2014. From the start, radical groups quoted the Qur’an, sura 5 verse 51, as the basis of opposition to him, claiming that its injunction to Muslims not to take non-Muslims as “allies” meant that the predominantly Muslim population of Jakarta should not be led by a non-Muslim.

At the outset of his campaigning last September, Mr Purnama spoke against the use of this Qur’an verse by his opponents, and was accused of blasphemy by those same opponents (News, 23 December). His blasphemy trial has run concurrently with the mayoral campaign, and was a significant setback for his chances of re-election.

Mr Baswedan is not by instinct a radical Islamist. He is a former minister in the present government of President Joko Widodo; he was a Fulbright scholar in the United States; during his career, he built a reputation as a moderate Muslim.

Candidates who stood against Mr Purnama, however, including Mr Baswedan, saw potential benefit in adopting a higher Islamic profile and seeking to Islamise the electoral discourse. When radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) marshalled thousands of protesters in rallies in Jakarta, calling for Mr Purnama to be imprisoned on blasphemy charges, Mr Baswedan arranged to meet the FPI leadership, to be seen to represent wide-ranging viewpoints. The electoral campaign from that point became a contest between a Christian mayor and his Muslim opponents.

Extreme groups such as the FPI have long been regarded as marginal, but the landscape has changed. The activism that such groups could marshal has become a significant factor. The former army strongman Prabowo Subianto was thought to be a spent force after losing to President Widodo in the 2014 presidential elections. He was, however, noticeable in the victory celebrations of Mr Baswedan’s team this week. We can expect to see radical Islamist groups such as the FPI rallying protesters in suport of Mr Subianto’s candidacy.

The presidential elections may become a rerun of the mayoral elections, where a moderate democratic incumbent faces an opponent who is willing to play the Islamic card to gain strategic advantage.

Indonesia faces an unpredictable and potentially unstable political environment in years to come.

Professor Peter Riddell is Vice-Principal Academic at Melbourne School of Theology, and professorial research associate in history at SOAS, University of London.

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