The Improbable Rise and Blasphemous Fall of a Christian Politician in Indonesia

The country has no choice but to live with religious identity politics — but it doesn't have to like the consequences.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - MARCH 31: Thousands of Indonesian Muslims protest against the Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama known widely as "Ahok" on March 31, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia.   The leader of one of the groups behind this protest and recent others was arrested Friday morning on suspicion of treason, as religious and political sentiments are increasingly contentious ahead of the Jakarta Governor election in April.(Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images)
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - MARCH 31: Thousands of Indonesian Muslims protest against the Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama known widely as "Ahok" on March 31, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. The leader of one of the groups behind this protest and recent others was arrested Friday morning on suspicion of treason, as religious and political sentiments are increasingly contentious ahead of the Jakarta Governor election in April.(Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — “Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said at a joint press conference last Thursday during a visit to the country. “In your nation, as in mine, religion unifies — it doesn’t divide.”

His timing could have been better. He arrived in Southeast Asia’s largest country the day after a contentious Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which the incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, lost soundly after a protracted, divisive, sometimes violent campaign season marked by religious tensions.

In the end, what was remarkable about Ahok wasn’t his ugly fall but his quixotic rise. He was not the first Christian, Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta, a city of 10 million and capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but he was the first such “double minority” to hold the office in fifty years. His singular public profile, while compounded by his ethnic and religious background, was in part self-fashioned: He ran initially as an independent in a country controlled by powerful political parties (before accepting eventual nominations from several parties), he evaded the taint of corruption (although it is commonplace and often consequence-free), and he dared to be brash in a political climate that often prizes opaque serenity.

Ahok’s irreverence played an unquestionable role in his downfall. His offhand, if glib, remark on the campaign trail last September, when he riffed on a Quran verse that contests whether Muslims can vote for non-Muslim leaders, led to a monthslong Islamist-populist protest movement that twice brought Jakarta to a screeching halt. His now-victorious opponent, former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, is an independent who both implicitly and overtly allied his campaign with Islamist groups, whipping a segment of Jakarta into a furor that culminated in his 58 percent victory in the polls.

But the hand-wringing among Indonesia’s chattering classes, who fear Ahok’s defeat signals Islamism may soon overrun their country, has been overwrought. It’s certainly true that last fall’s protests were the largest ever seen in Jakarta. And the newly mainstream status of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the hard-line group that organized them, must be considered a significant development. Indeed, FPI’s hysterical charges against Ahok led swiftly to a controversial blasphemy trial, which meant Ahok was obliged to attend weekly court appointments in the last months of his campaign. (In Indonesia, blasphemy, defined as “deviant interpretation” of any of the six officially recognized religions, has been illegal since 1965 and is punishable with up to five years in prison.)

In reality, however, the election was not a symbol of a major shift in Indonesian politics, so much as an imperfect case of the country’s endemic electoral fight between pluralistic democracy and political Islam. Not every populist who emerges victorious in a fierce election after indulging in reactionary rhetoric should be considered a major disruption to his or her country’s system of politics. Certainly Baswedan — a former university rector, Fulbright scholar, experienced cabinet member, and longtime moderate, who nevertheless engaged in some reprehensible rhetoric over the last six months — doesn’t qualify as a destructive political force.

Ahok didn’t help himself politically. All along, he was unapologetic about unpopular policies, including mass evictions in poor neighborhoods that he wanted to raze for touristic redevelopment. Groups affected by these policies enthusiastically joined anti-Ahok protests, adding another, less reactionary layer to the popular discontent.

“For us, there is only one choice,” said Chaerul, a cab driver who lives in a low-income housing development built by Ahok. “Ahok is cruel.” Not a single resident I met at Rumah Susun Jatinegara voted for Ahok. Most were forcibly relocated there in 2015 after the city government forced them out of their riverside slum.

Even before the blasphemy charge, Ahok aroused mixed reactions. Polls consistently showed that while his performance garnered about 80 percent satisfaction, his general “approval rating/electability” hovered between 30 and 40 percent, as the Jakarta Post reported. In February 2016, well before the incident, Indonesian media expressed concern for Ahok’s election prospects, given his propensity for “toilet words” (he is well-known for swearing).

All this suggests that Ahok had vulnerabilities ever since he rose to his post in 2014 — whether from simmering racism or unpopular policies or personality quibbles. Ahok wasn’t merely a symbol but a human candidate, with unique skills and flaws. That’s why the notion of his electoral defeat serving as a referendum on the state of Indonesian pluralism has a whiff of overstatement.

And yet political Islam was undoubtedly the big winner of the day. If FPI’s campaign was, as some commentators have said, a trial balloon for exploiting identity politics for political gain in Indonesia, it worked stunningly well and is sure to be repeated. The current president — Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi — is a moderate, up for re-election in 2019. The race promises to be messy.

Race and ethnicity were once so taboo in Indonesian public life that they had their own acronym, SARA. That’s Suku Agama Ras dan Antar Golongan, or “ethnicity, religion, and race relations,” a term popularized during Suharto’s “New Order” dictatorship, when public discussion of SARA was prohibited to encourage national unity. Like most taboo subjects, though, race and religion often mattered deeply; ethnic Chinese have long been viewed with suspicion and resentment in some quarters and have been the target of violence and government-backed massacres.

This gubernatorial race, at any rate, was an identity free-for-all, with FPI exhorting voters not to back a non-Muslim, mosques erecting banners that they wouldn’t bury Ahok voters, and Baswedan promising to create Muslim-friendly (alcohol-free) nightlife in Jakarta.

The strategy worked well and remarkably fast. By February, 70 percent of registered Jakarta voters approved of Ahok’s performance as governor, according to a survey — but more than half of those people said they would not vote for him because they felt he had offended Islam. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it may usher in a generation of Indonesians who cast their votes on explicitly religious lines.

Members of Indonesia’s centrist establishment were caught off guard by the popular appeal of the anti-Ahok movement. They tried several tacks — staying silent, then gently discouraging, then condemning FPI — but none worked. And their authority to speak on the case was never clear. After all, the supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest moderate Muslim organization in Indonesia, was one of the religious figures who signed the fatwa that led to Ahok’s arrest.

NU admitted as much to Foreign Policy in February, saying the group was blindsided by the unstable foundations of its brand of tolerant pluralism.

“After the election, when politicians resume their daily life, these religious sentiments will not go away easily,” said Alissa Wahid, an NU official and daughter of late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid. “Now, hard-liners will be more confident in pressuring locals’ behavior, especially their political agendas.” They present their motive, she said, as “piousness or devotion, but it’s actually bringing the seed of intolerance to others.”

But the likely end of Ahok’s political career is not the end of Indonesian pluralism. Although the Kafkaesque charge and trial leveled against Ahok will be analyzed for years to come, it was a spark atop the pile of grievances many religious Jakartans have accrued with their country’s secular establishment.

Indonesia’s young democracy is still robust: More than 80 percent of those eligible voted in the runoff election, even higher than the 77 percent who voted in February. (Only about 57 percent of eligible Americans voted in the most recent presidential election, for comparison.)

Ahok, too, came remarkably far in Jakarta politics for someone who’s not a local or even from Java — he grew up in the distant Bangka-Belitung province, known largely for tin mines, where his grandfather worked. He was hand-picked by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle to join Jokowi, then the mayor of a midsized city in Java, on his Jakarta gubernatorial ticket in 2012. When Jokowi became president in 2014, Ahok assumed the governorship. During his time in office, Ahok has closed red-light districts and seedy nightclubs, expanded “Smart Cards” for access to social services, and cleaned the city’s notoriously bilious Ciliwung River.

“Ahok’s defeat is a setback for democracy in Indonesia,” said Wati, a polling station staffer in East Jakarta, after the results became apparent on election day. “It’s really sad. But us supporters will never regret rooting for him.” He was, she told me, a new kind of politician.

A few days before the election, Ahok promised to execute as much of his agenda as he could before leaving office in October. His ability to do so depends on the verdict of his ongoing blasphemy trial. FPI is pressing for a maximum five-year penalty, but prosecutors just floated a “light sentence” of two years’ probation, sans jail time.

Last week was momentous for Muslim-majority democracies, beginning with Turkey’s referendum on presidential power and ending with Ahok’s loss and potential imprisonment. Whereas Turkey and Indonesia both, at different points in this century, looked like the inevitable future of tolerant democracy in the Muslim world, each just took a decisive step toward authoritarianism and political Islam, respectively. In Indonesia, at least, the election reflected high voter turnout and various state and nonstate interests, rather than the will of a particular individual, but the outcome can’t be described as a step toward multicultural democracy.

But when ugly sentiments like racism and fundamentalism are forced into public conversation, a societal reckoning, with an uncertain outcome, is inevitable. What’s clear is that Ahok’s idiosyncratic life in politics deserves to be celebrated, even as the forces that agitated for his decline, now loosed from their box and unlikely to retreat anytime soon, suggest otherwise.

Photo credit: ED WRAY/Getty Images

Correction, April 26, 2017: An earlier version of this article stated that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was the first Christian, Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta. He was the second. Clarification, April 26, 2017: An earlier version stated that he ran as an independent. He ran as an independent initially, but later accepted nominations from several political parties. 

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur

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