3 takeaways from Anies Baswedan’s election win in Jakarta

3 takeaways from Anies Baswedan’s election win in Jakarta

The key question in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election was whether a Christian should govern a majority-Muslim electorate. What does this say about where Indonesia is headed?

On Wednesday April 19, former culture and education minister Anies Baswedan won the race for Jakarta governor, after what Jakarta Post described as “the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive” election ever. Baswedan gained 58% of the vote, beating incumbent Basuki Thahaja Purnama, known by his Chinese nickname ‘Ahok’.

After becoming governor in 2014, Ahok was popular with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, reputed for his firm approach and strong track record. However, his re-election campaign was tainted by blasphemy allegations.

Last September, Ahok was heard remarking to a small crowd that his rivals were tricking people into voting against him, by manipulating a Koranic verse. The statement was twisted in social media, with Ahok’s opponents claiming he had insulted Islam. The use of Islam as a political weapon reveals much about the future direction of Indonesian politics and society, three aspects of which are discussed here.

1. Growing religious polarisation

Firstly, Ahok’s defeat reflects not only the marginalisation of non-Muslim interests but also the speed and efficiency in which they were pushed to the periphery. This election was viewed as a “tolerance litmus test” for Indonesia. It came against a backdrop of rising religious intolerance and attacks on minorities that have tainted the country’s moderate, pluralistic image.

After Ahok’s blunder, his Chinese-Christian background became a dominant factor in his unpopularity. Baswedan’s strategy was to play the religion card and appeal to the Islamic base (approximately 78% of Jakarta’s voters). He directly addressed Muslim groups, propagating the message that Muslims must only choose Muslim leaders. The message rapidly spread, and anti-Ahok pamphlets and banners proliferated across the capital.

It was how Baswedan did this, in what Australian National University associate professor Marcus Mietzner branded the “public destruction of his liberal image,” which requires comment. Formerly a university rector and a known reformist, Baswedan openly courted the conservative Islamic vote. By doing so he brought Islamic interests to the core and pushed out pluralist, non-Muslim – and, arguably, reformist – interests to the periphery.

Whilst this result can be read as a protest vote against Ahok, the reality is more complex. Ahok was the first non-Muslim to hold the position. Given the effectiveness at which Islam was mobilised as a political weapon to destroy Ahok’s leadership bid, there is unlikely to be another non-Muslim governor in the near future. Baswedan and his allies exploited ethno-religious divisions and communal tensions, reinforcing the country’s trajectory towards sectarianism and away from reform

2. Growth of hardline Islam

Secondly, this election result reflects the assault by extremism on moderate Islam and the growing power of sectarian politics in Indonesia.

Baswedan had served as President Jokowi’s education minister until being replaced in a strategic reshuffle in July 2016. His removal was largely driven by Jokowi’s need to consolidate Muslim support ahead of the 2019 election. Baswedan was replaced by a member of the Muhammadiyah, an influential Islamic NGO in Indonesia. But Jokowi perhaps also viewed Baswedan as a potential rival for the 2019 presidential bid.

During the campaign, Baswedan strategically aligned with the hardline Islam Defenders Front (FPI), and it is to that alliance that he owes his victory. Baswedan advertised himself as a religious conservative, donning traditional clothing and preaching to FPI supporters.

In the run-up to the election, the FPI organised three mass demonstrations against Ahok – one of which turned violent. Hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims protested in Jakarta, calling for the incarceration of this ‘infidel’ unfit to govern. Fears of more protests like these in the future may have prompted some moderate voters not to vote for Ahok.

Mass turnouts at the FPI rallies reflect growing support for conservative Islamic leadership in the Indonesian capital

Baswedan pledged to those hardliners to enforce Islamic codes of social behaviour in Jakarta, including shutting down all places of prostitution. Yet because of “serious resistance from the powerful business interests behind such venues,” Jakarta is unlikely to turn into the next Aceh.

Nevertheless, the FPI, as much as Baswedan, are the big winners from this election. Formerly known for petty attacks on minority groups (with leader Rizieq Shihab twice jailed for inciting violence), it has risen to prominence as an important figurehead for political Islam in Indonesia. This is the latest episode in the growth of hardline Islamism since the transition to democracy in 1998.

3. Implications of Anies Baswedan’s win for national politics

Thirdly, Baswedan’s victory reflects the re-emergence of parochial and conservative political forces.

Ahok had been backed by a coalition of parties, including the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jokowi’s party. Having been released from the PDI-P, Baswedan’s governorship bid was backed by Gerindra and the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Gerindra is lead by retired general Prabowo Subianto, former son-in-law of President Suharto. Subianto’s star is rising in Indonesia, having narrowly lost to Jokowi in the 2014 presidential vote. He is expected to challenge in 2019, and Baswedan will face pressure to help Prabowo canvas support. Controlling Jakarta means Gerindra can block legislation passed by the Jokowi administration, threatening his reform programme.

Given Jakarta’s significance to the country as a whole, this election was touted as an important barometer for the 2019 presidential election. Safe in the knowledge that it is a winning recipe, presidential candidates will be influenced to appeal to Indonesia’s Islamic core. This will also pay dividends for conservative Islamic groups like the FPI, which will progressively seize the centre ground and be endowed with greater political legitimacy.

Until last autumn, the popular Ahok seemed bound to be re-elected. According to a BBC report he “was widely accepted, even by his critics, to be one of the most effective administrators” in Indonesian history. Yet it was Baswedan who won by a huge margin, after the blasphemy controversy erupted late last year.

Ahok’s case is politically motivated; the forces behind his downfall will ensure he is not acquitted – just as no Indonesian charged with blasphemy has been before. In the words of one writer, Islamist groups were the great kingmakers in this election. The speed and efficiency in which they performed this role “is a reminder that Indonesia’s democracy remains young and volatile.”

After almost 20 years since democracy re-emerged, modernisation and political reforms are at risk of being undone by parochial and conservative political forces.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alexander is a doctoral researcher at Newcastle University with a focus on Southeast Asian politics and geography. He has recently completed his PhD thesis, which critically assesses the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections.