Indonesia: Politics Just Became More Complicated

4 MINS READApr 19, 2017 | 16:43 GMT

A polarizing election for the Jakarta governor post has come to an end, but a more complicated era of Indonesian politics is just beginning. The official results of the April 19 runoff will not be released until May. Nonetheless, according to "quick counts" tallied by several Indonesian research firms, former Cabinet minister Anies Baswedan appears headed for a landslide victory, with 57-60 percent of the vote, compared with just 41-43 percent for incumbent Gov. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.

Jakarta is Indonesia's center of economic and political power. Second only to the president, its governor is generally the most influential civilian politician in Indonesia — so the election can be seen as a proxy contest with broader implications, including for Indonesia's 2019 presidential vote. Ahok was backed by Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (who himself used the Jakarta governorship as a stepping stone to the presidency), while Anies was backed by Widodo's opponent in the last presidential race, former Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party.

The country's first modern president from outside the military and political elite, Widodo took office in 2014 as an outsider without substantial institutional backing or robust party machinery at his disposal. Though the president remains broadly popular and has strengthened the position of his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) considerably, he has done so, in part, by scaling back his ambitious reform agenda. The defeat of Ahok, his protege, in the gubernatorial election will not necessarily make the president a lame duck heading into the 2019 election. But it may effectively weaken the president's mandate for reform, while giving his rivals control over the country's economic and political heartland — and a potential candidate to rally around in 2019. And the opposition parties will now turn to scoring follow on victories in 2018 elections in Indonesia's largest constituencies: East Java, West Java and Central Java.

This election featured an intertwining of religion and politics largely unparalleled since Indonesia transitioned to democracy in 1998.

Anies' apparent victory may at least temporarily ease religious and ethnic tension in the capital. Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, is facing trial for blasphemy charges — a case that has sparked protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands, including by hardline Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Ahok's trial is set to resume April 20 with prosecutors submitting their sentencing demand — which may total as many as five years. His loss would reduce the immediate political consequences of a conviction in the trial. Although they will pull back on the protests and plots that have disrupted Jakarta for months, hardline Islamists will be emboldened by their newfound ability to sway national politics and will seek a more active role in politics.

Nonetheless, managing the geographically and ethnically fractured country — the world's largest Muslim-majority nation — will remain a stiff challenge for any Indonesian leader. And this election featured an intertwining of religion and politics largely unparalleled since Indonesia transitioned to democracy in 1998. (During the New Order period, strongman Suharto and his military allies helped keep a lid on religious and ethnic tensions.) Anies himself is a Western-educated academic with moderate secularist credentials but, when protests broke out against Ahok, courted Islamist activists who claimed the Quran forbids Muslims from electing non-Muslim leaders. He will struggle to expand his support among the Indonesian political establishment without alienating his newfound conservative base. Widodo, too, was forced to downplay his commitment to secularism after facing backlash for gently chiding Anies' supporters for mixing religion and politics.

Indonesia's domestic divides typically produce inward-looking governments, with the country's leaders struggling to overcome domestic constraints to open the economy to outside trade and investment or play a more assertive role in regional security matters. The anti-Ahok mass protests in December, for example, delayed long-overdue trade and defense talks between Jokowi and his counterparts in Australia. Ethnic discontent in far-flung Indonesian regions such as West Papua have made the military somewhat suspicious of Western defense initiatives in the region. As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Jakarta this week in hopes of urging Indonesia to further embrace its potential as a liberal, more engaged anchor in Southeast Asia and the broader Muslim world, the forces keeping Indonesian leaders preoccupied with internal fissures remain.

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