Indonesia Faces a Regional Vote With National Consequences

7 MINS READFeb 13, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
Thousands of Muslims have taken to the streets in Indonesia's capital of Jakarta to demand that the city's incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama -- a Christian who is currently on trial for blasphemy -- drop out of the race for his re-election.
(ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Even if Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is re-elected in a Feb. 15 vote, he could still face prison time on blasphemy charges.
  • If the vote goes into a runoff, the political crisis Purnama's arrest and trial have created will drag out into April.
  • Should Purnama lose his office, Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration will have a harder time pursuing its ambitious reforms and regional strategy.

In Indonesia, a country of over 257 million people dispersed over more than 18,000 islands, Jakarta is singular. With a population of nearly 10 million (and 28 million in the greater metropolitan area), the capital is three times larger than Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya. Jakarta is the core of the island of Java, where 56 percent of the country's population lives, and generates nearly 17 percent of Indonesia's gross domestic product. The political party that rules the city, moreover, has a major hand in ruling the country. So when Indonesians in 101 localities across the country head to the polls for regional elections Feb. 15, all eyes will be on the gubernatorial race in the Special Capital Region of Jakarta.

Second only to the president, the governor of the capital region is the most influential civilian politician in Indonesia. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, in fact, used the post as a steppingstone to his current office. After leaving the governorship in 2014, Jokowi's office passed to his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, keeping Jakarta under control of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Purnama has expressed interest in replicating Jokowi's rise, and he is rumored to be the president's top pick for the vice presidency when Jokowi seeks re-election in 2019. But Purnama's path to power — or even another term as Jakarta's governor — is looking dubious. For Jokowi, whose ambitious plans for reform have met with stiff headwinds over the course of his three years in office, Purnama's political troubles are a threat to his position in power.

Identity Politics

Since taking over as Jakarta's governor, Purnama has earned a reputation as an effective, no-nonsense leader through his dogged pursuit of anti-corruption and urban renewal measures. But he has a couple of potentially fatal political weaknesses: Unlike nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's overwhelmingly Muslim population, Purnama is a Christian. On top of that, he is ethnically Chinese.

Though Indonesia recognizes Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity among the country's six equal religions, non-Muslims in the country have often struggled to find their place in society. Furthermore, Indonesia, like neighboring Malaysia, has a contentious history with its Chinese minority. Indonesia's Chinese population wields outsize influence in the country, though it accounts for less than 2 percent of the population. Their relative affluence, combined with their ostensible ties to a foreign power, has made members of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community a frequent target of populist ire and political abuse. Thousands of ethnically Chinese Indonesians (among others) were killed for their alleged ties to the People's Republic of China during a vicious 1965 anti-communist purge. Some 30 years later, as longtime President Suharto's New Order government faltered, massive riots against ethnic Chinese erupted. They occupied a tenuous position in the intervening years, lacking full citizenship rights but economically useful to the Suharto administration. It was not until 2006 that a citizenship law was passed to enable ethnic Chinese Indonesians to run for the presidency.

A Scandal Is Born

Purnama's political opponents have taken advantage of his vulnerabilities throughout his career. But today, his religion has put him at the center of a political crisis that could jeopardize his re-election campaign and, in turn, Jokowi's efforts to consolidate power. In late September 2016, a video surfaced of Purnama decrying his opponents' use of verses from the Quran to persuade voters not to support him, a non-Muslim. The video quickly went viral, sparking allegations that Purnama had blasphemed by speaking against the interpretation of the verse. By October, protests had broken out in Jakarta, spearheaded by a hard-line group known as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The demonstrations grew, drawing more than 200,000 people to the streets Dec. 2 to demand that Purnama be tried for blasphemy and leave the race for Jakarta's governorship. (Purnama hit back, and now the head of the FPI is under investigation for defaming the first president of Indonesia, degrading Indonesia's multi-religious policy, defaming Christians and disseminating pornography.) Later in December, Indonesian authorities heeded the protesters' calls and charged Purnama with blasphemy. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison, according to Indonesia's 1965 blasphemy law.

Still, the governor has not dropped out of the race and has continued to campaign through his trial. The verdict is expected in March, when the results of the upcoming vote will also be released. (A second vote will be held in April in the likely event that no clear winner emerges after the Feb. 15 elections.) Purnama could wind up going to prison even if he wins re-election; the blasphemy law has been successfully applied several times over the past several years. The FPI planned a Feb. 11 march through the city to demand that voters reject the regional governor, but police banned that particular demonstration. Instead, over 100,000 people gathered at Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque to protest. 

Beyond the Governor's Office

The political unrest in Jakarta has already caused problems for Jokowi. Protests on Nov. 5, for instance, forced the president to cancel a visit to Australia, a critical neighbor for Indonesia. Jokowi's visit, during which he was set to meet Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and address Parliament, was finally rescheduled to Feb. 26 after two months of delay. If the turmoil in Jakarta continues, it could also undermine Indonesia's political coherence and threaten Jokowi's vision to use the country's strategic maritime position to increase its influence in the region. But the final political costs to Jokowi and the ruling party remain to be seen. Polling for the gubernatorial election is unreliable, so it is difficult to say whether the bid to take down Purnama will succeed.

Nonetheless, Purnama's political opponents have taken advantage of the furor — and may even have been behind it. Powerful military interests in Indonesia have been trying to whip up Muslim populist fervor for the past few years to gain a foothold from which to challenge Jokowi in the 2019 elections. One of the two contenders vying to unseat Purnama from Jakarta's governorship, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, is the son of Jokowi's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army officer who served during Suharto's rule. A political novice coming off a career in the military, Agus has the support of the Democratic Party along with a coalition of three parties that advocate giving Islam a greater role in Indonesia. The third candidate looks unlikely to make it past the first round of the vote, meaning that the race for the governorship may well come down to Agus and Purnama. If he wins, many have speculated that Agus could go on to challenge Jokowi in the next general elections.

Whatever the vote's outcome, the efforts to take down Jakarta's governor have cast doubt on Jokowi's political power. The upheaval will likely make it even more difficult for Jokowi to pursue the wide-ranging reforms that he has proposed to undertake in Indonesia, including measures to shift the country's economy toward manufacturing.

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