JUST a few short weeks ago the governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was defeated in his bid for re-election.
Many despaired but others did not. There were rumblings that Ahok would be made a minister in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet. Ahok was going to go on to even bigger and better things.
Now that possibility has been shattered and Ahok has been sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges for ‘insulting Islam’. Arguably worse than that, he has been barred him from holding public office for life.
Ahok has signalled that he will appeal, but should it fail he will never serve Jakarta or Indonesia as a government official ever again.
At any other time, Ahok’s blasphemy trial and conviction may simply have marked a dark period in Indonesia’s history. With the presidential election looming in 2019 however, it has added fuel to the fire.
Many commentators were already discussing the implications of Ahok’s loss in the gubernatorial election in terms of Jokowi’s chances of re-election. Now all talk is focused on how the blasphemy conviction bodes badly for the president.
Has Ahok’s blasphemy conviction damaged Jokowi’s chances? Probably not.
Back in 2014 Jokowi chose Ahok as his running mate when he set his sights on the presidency, but that doesn’t mean that he is now going to suffer in the polls simply by association. He also has to be commended for his handling of the Ahok blasphemy case.
There are some who accused him of throwing his colleague under the bus by not defending him publically, but this is unfair. As Jokowi said himself, he could not and should not, as president, become involved in legal matters which are rightly dealt with by the courts. Over the last few months he has walked the fine line between refusing to publically denounce Ahok or defend him, and he has done it well.
There has also been commentary that Jokowi may suffer similar consequences to Ahok during the gubernatorial election which was heavily criticised for using religious differences to sway voters, with some Muslim hardline groups going as far as saying that Ahok voters would be refused burial rights.
32.4 percent of voters said they picked Anies Baswedan, Ahok’s rival and a Muslim candidate, based on religion, so it’s fair to say that religious issues played a role in Ahok’s defeat. Many blamed Anies’ main supporter Prabowo Subianto and others close to him for whipping up religious divisions, with rumours that Prabowo or perhaps even Anies may run for election in 2019 using the same tactics.
It’s hard however to see how this could affect Jokowi, mainly because he is also Muslim. Ahok presented religious groups with an easy target as he is a double minority, being both of Chinese descent and a Christian. Had religious hardliners stopped there, many voters may not have been swayed, but Ahok was accused of being not only a Christian, but also a blasphemer who had deliberately insulted Islam. To many, this was a compelling reason not to vote for him.
How could a similar argument be applied to Jokowi? He’s Muslim so labelling him as ‘different’ won’t work. He also hasn’t made any comments about the Quran. It was extremely unwise for someone in Ahok’s position to delve into interpretations of religious scripture but, barring a moment of complete madness, it seems unlikely Jokowi would make such a similar gaffe. He is also Javanese, as every president of Indonesia has been since independence in 1945.
There are some commentators who feel that this could still be exploited in some way, and that race, religion and class could all be used against Jokowi in 2019. In saying this they appear to have short memories.
Jokowi already dealt with similar issues when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2014. At the time he experienced a similar ‘birther’ moment to Obama, with questions about his ethnicity and some critics implying that he was half Chinese because he didn’t look Javanese ‘enough’.
Others questioned whether he was really Muslim, prompting Jokowi to release photographs of a trip to Mecca. In short, the smear campaign revolving around identity and religion has been tried before with Jokowi and it didn’t work. Now Jokowi has the distinct advantage of being able to point to a good track record as president.
According to Jakarta based pollster Indo Barometer, as of March 2017 Jokowi is enjoying an approval rating of 66.4%. This is due to his likeable style as a leader and also his implementation of a range of well received policies. After a somewhat rocky start, he is now finding his footing as president.
One slightly shaky moment where it looked like Ahok’s critics might similarly pounce on Jokowi came recently when he made an innocuous comment about how politics and religion should not be confused. For a second it seemed this was going to be ruthlessly exploited as a sign of Jokowi’s lack of religious fervour, although it was quickly written off as a storm in a teacup. Jokowi should however learn from this, as he eyes a second term.
There is no denying that the presidency will be hotly contested, but the idea that 2019 will see the same mud-slinging as 2017 seems unlikely. Ahok and Jokowi are two very different men, and even though this is certainly a troubling time for democracy in Indonesia, Ahok’s blasphemy trial may yet prove to be an unexpected blessing in disguise.
Already social media in Indonesia is abuzz with talk of taking back the small amount of control that hardliners may now be claiming. Calls to action are being put forward, with many stating that the only way to stop what they see as rising religious intolerance is to vote to re-elect Jokowi in 2019.
Prabowo and Anies were blamed for mixing politics and religion in the gubernatorial election and for supporting Ahok’s blasphemy trial. It won Anies the role of governor but it may now backfire as the backlash against Ahok’s conviction grows. In Indonesian politics generally the moderate voters are the ones who make up silent majority, with smaller, usually religiously motivated groups making the most noise. It seems that the silent majority is silent no more.
In the few short hours after Ahok was taken to Rutan Cipinang to begin serving his sentence, many Indonesians took to social media urging voters in 2019 to reject the people who helped to put him there.
Far from ruining Jokowi’s chances, Ahok may just have become the man who keeps him in power.