The Fall of Ahok and Indonesia’s Future

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The Fall of Ahok and Indonesia’s Future

Ahok’s defeat says less about the rise of Islamism and more about the strength of entrenched political interests.

The Fall of Ahok and Indonesia’s Future

Anies Baswedan (C) holds the hand of Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto (R) as Baswedan running mate Sandiaga Uno (L) talks to reporters after voting in the Jakarta governor election (April 19, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The much anticipated second round election for Jakarta’s governorship was a dud, with challenger Anies Baswedan easily outperforming pre-election polls and soundly defeating incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama by 16 points. The result has sent shockwaves across Indonesia and the world, with many comparing the result to the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.

“Mainstream political elites [used] religious and ethnic appeals to de-legitimize a candidate, to… crush an opponent. This is new to Indonesia,” said Douglas Ramage, a political analyst and the Managing Director of the consultancy BowerGroupAsia in Indonesia.

Stunningly, it seems that most of those who voted for the third-place finisher in the first round, Agus Yudhoyono, swung to Anies. Ahok’s strong debate performances, his record as governor, and the support, albeit not as forthcoming as might have been hoped, from President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo were not enough when facing the power of a force few had considered potent until today: conservative Islam.

Identity Over Policy

The rise of Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent, was considered by many a symbol of Indonesia’s historic secular identity. He was among a wave of new, independent leaders, rising to national fame when he was elected as deputy governor alongside Jokowi in 2012, and taking over leadership of Indonesia’s capital with the election of Jokowi to the presidency in 2014.

“Ahok is a unique case in recent Indonesian politics,” said Jemma Purdey, a research fellow at the Australia Indonesia Center. “He did not rise through the ranks of any party but was an independent, administrator-style politician who was backed by rival major parties to get into the position he is in today.”

Ahok’s record was one of action. He tackled corruption, expanded health care, pushed forward on plans to clear up Jakarta’s canals, and is credited with ensuring that the construction of the capital city’s first metro system stays on schedule. His abrasive style – displays of emotion, unfiltered language, and a confrontational attitude – were refreshing to many Jakartans, and he looked like he was headed toward a quick re-election.

On the contrary, Anies’ record was checkered. He has never held elected office before, though he was initially a member of Jokowi’s cabinet, as minister of education and culture. He was removed during the infamous July 2016 reshuffle, and there are allegations that the ministry misappropriated funds while he was its head. He also allegedly took a bribe to help win a government project. The country’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is looking into both allegations.

But Anies, who was, previously a moderate, took on an Islamic identity during his campaign, frequently wearing a white shirt and traditional Indonesia pecil, and using thinly veiled campaign messages asserting that Jakarta, as a Muslim-majority city, deserves a Muslim governor. While Ahok focused on policy, Anies and his allies focused on religion. And it worked.

The Rise of a New, Islamic Leadership

The truth is, Ahok always had a target on his back. His style and policies were a threat to Indonesia’s establishment, and the small circle of political leaders under whom most power still remains.

“The rise of such a virulent campaign against Ahok was surprising when it came, but the intent to find a way to get rid of Ahok had been building for some time,” said Purdey. “Clearly there were significant resources ready and willing to back this campaign when the opportunity arose.”

Ahok’s candid style made such a moment inevitable, and it finally happened in October last year, when he mentioned a verse from the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran, during a campaign stop. This eventually led to him being charged with blasphemy, but many observers saw the case as politically motivated. In fact, the day after the election, prosecutors elected to downgrade the charge, possibly because, after the landslide victory for Anies, it was no longer necessary.

The group that led the uproar was the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The FPI is considered a conservative fringe group that did not represent most Indonesian Muslims. They occasionally held small rallies targeting Ahok in Jakarta, few of which got any attention. After the blasphemy charge, suddenly the group was organizing mass rallies that were bringing in people from all around Indonesia. Even more surprisingly, it was their leaders, not those of Indonesia’s established, moderate Islamic institutions, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, that were speaking on behalf of Indonesia’s Islamic community.

“The Indonesia we used to talk about – Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah – their influence has waned a bit,” said Ramage.

It is easy to see the rise of the FPI as a symbol of religious revival in Indonesia. But, as is often the case in the archipelago, it may be a marriage of convenience rather than a sign of a new force.

“Those backing the FPI… are very well-resourced,” said Purdey. “It is speculated that they are likely to include property developers and other businesses who have been slighted by Ahok as governor, through his planning decisions, The issues fueling this ‘religious’ campaign are very likely to come back to power and money above all.”

Jokowi, 2019, and Indonesia’s New Political Landscape

Now that it has been proven that religion can be a wedge issue, many expect that the tactics used to unseat Ahok will be used in other races, the most important of which is the 2019 presidential race, when Jokowi will almost certainly run for re-election.

“The lesson has been learned,” said Ramage. “You can have a huge impact by attacking race and religion. It’s not just rising intolerance – mainstream politicians are taking advantage of it.”

In fact, we saw a bit of this in 2014, when religion was used as a tool against Jokowi, with allegations spreading online that he was not really Muslim. His opponent in the second round, Prabowo Subianto, won the backing of most of Indonesia’s Islamic parties and his use of religion as a wedge issue is cited as one reason that the race ended up being so close. It is also why Jokowi has been more visibly Islamic as president than he ever was as governor of Jakarta and, before that, mayor of Solo.

Prabowo, of course, is an ally of Anies, who ran under the banner of his Gerindra Party, and the two of them prayed together at Jakarta’s Istiqal Mosque after the results were announced. Many expect Prabowo to take another shot at the presidency in 2019, and already Anies is rumored as a likely running mate.

Jokowi’s approval ratings right now are very high, with numbers in March coming in at 66 percent. That is nearly identical to where Ahok was a year ago, before he was caught on video speaking about the Quran. While Jokowi’s religion may give him cover, it might not be enough. When he made a statement saying that politics and religion should be “well separated so that people could differentiate between political and religious matters,” he found himself the target of vicious criticism from religious conservatives.

For all of his brandishing of Islam, before entering politics, Anies was a moderate academic. Prabowo is a military leader-turned businessman. Religion to them is a tool to win votes, not a platform to govern on. The fears of many in Jakarta are not that sharia law will enter into force, but that Anies will resume the corrupt, ineffective practices typical of too many Indonesian politicians.

So what does Anies’s victory mean for Indonesia? A useful analogy may come from the election many are comparing Jakarta’s result to. In the United States, the Republican party used religion and other wedge issues, such as gun rights, abortion, and immigration, to win elections for years, while, in actuality, not governing like they campaigned. That all changed when an outsider candidate came, focusing on those very issues that had become the core of Republican ideology. Donald Trump is the candidate the Republican party created, but never wanted.

If Indonesia’s power elite keep using religion as a wedge issue to win elections successfully, it may be only a matter of time before they create their own Trump-like, conservative-religious political leader. And then, the dream of a secular, tolerant, diverse Indonesia may finally be lost.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.