Ahok plays the unity card, but will it work so close to election day?
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Ahok plays the unity card, but will it work so close to election day?

BHINEKA Tunggal Ika is a saying in traditional Javanese which translates to “unity in diversity.” It is the official motto of Indonesia and a source of pride for most of the country’s 250 million people.

It is now also the theme of Jakarta’s governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s campaign for re-election. The incumbent’s campaign team has drastically shifted strategy since he failed to gain 50 percent of the popular vote in February, meaning Jakarta is required to go to a run-off poll.

Ahok’s campaign had previously emphasised policy and his achievements in office, including easing floods and traffic problems, beginning construction of an MRT and public green spaces, cracking down on corruption and reforming the civil service.

SEE ALSO: Forced evictions a major issue as Jakarta goes to run-off election

But late in the game, with the race too close to call, they are going after Jakarta’s emotions.

The campaign is targeting “undecided voters, particularly those who may have voted for Agus in the first round, in an attempt to sway them,” Dr Ian Wilson from the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University told Asian Correspondent.

Ask what you can do for Jakarta

Last Saturday, Ahok’s team released a video that was its most ambitious and sophisticated campaign material to date – depicting his campaign as one of Bhineka pluralism and tolerance against threatening, sectarian rivals.

It features a full array of Jakarta’s diversity – from a hijab-clad teacher to skaters hanging out with iconic Ondel-ondel; from priests, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and Islamic ustads to female bomb defusal experts and champion Tionghoa (ethnically Chinese) badminton players.

It even features a historical recreation of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno declaring independence in 1945.

Previous campaign material had included a raft of celebrities singing a song called the People’s Prayer for Ahok-Djarot, and an online weekly interview segment deemed the Ahok Show.

In contrast, the new video was exceptional for its high production quality and, importantly, its overt appeal to Indonesian nationalism.

Dr Ross Tapsell, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific told Asian Correspondent whether “Ahok has been an effective governor is not in question in this election.”

According to Tapsell, “[Ahok’s campaign team] thought this election was going to be won on reputation,” which he says is misguided. Indeed, the latest polls have shown Ahok trailing his opponent, largely for “emotional reasons.”

A voiceover monologue from Ahok’s running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat declares, “It’s not only jargon. Unity in diversity is already present and alive in Jakarta.” The campaign team accompanied the video with the hashtag #beragamItuBasukiDjarot – Ahok and Djarot are diverse.

The dialogue is an excerpt from a speech Djarot made during a mass campaign rally in Jakarta during Chinese New Year in February. Djarot even invokes JFK in declaring “[we] ask not where you’re from, ask not what your religion is, but ask what you can do for Jakarta.”



Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta declare Indonesian independence in Jakarta, on August 17, 1945. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Fighting fire with fire

Ahok has lost significant ground by continuing with a campaign based on policy, rather than emotion.

The Bhineka video is the “first overt attempt at fighting fire with fire when it comes to the sectarian campaign against him,” Wilson said.

Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, who emerged as a dark horse in February’s poll, has been successful in garnering support through appealing to Muslim voters offended and angered by Ahok’s comments.

Tapsell says Ahok team’s strategic shift is “overdue” and “exactly what needed to be done” if Ahok’s campaign is to be successful, given in a “post-truth” political environment voters have been shown to vote from their hearts, not minds. He cited the victory of populist Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Donald Trump in the US and the success of the Brexit campaign.

The “argument ‘a good Muslim doesn’t vote for Ahok’ is based around emotions, it’s not one based on policy,” Tapsell says. Given Anies’ reputation for building a career on promoting moderate Islam, many have accused him of cynically appealing to the religious right-wing for political gain.

Back in January, Anies came under fire for meeting with the controversial Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and their leader Rizieq Shibab, who had led the charge against the incumbent governor on the basis he insulted the Quran.

At the time, his campaign explained the move as being part of creating dialogue with all constituents in the community. “If we want Jakarta to unite, we can’t burn bridges and spread hostility,” said a spokesman for Anies.

But right-wing Islamic groups like the FPI have explicitly opposed Ahok based on his Tionghoa and Christian background since he was Jokowi’s running mate in 2012, far prior to his allegedly blasphemous comments.


Hardliners bang a banner reading “Hang Ahok here” during a protest in Central Jakarta. Source: Twitter @TolakBigotRI

Ahok’s evil campaign

Irrespective of political persuasion, the Ahok-Djarot Bhineka Tunggal Ika video was undoubtedly powerful and predictably attracted a major response from both supporters and opponents.

The opening scene of the original video was a focus of criticism, which depicted images reminiscent of anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in 1998 and implicitly tied this historical event to the recent angry mass protests by hardline Muslims against Ahok.

SEE ALSO: Radical groups hold Indonesian democracy hostage – Islamic scholar

Radical groups have indeed invoked xenophobic rhetoric as part of their campaign against the governor. The Twitter video below depicts hardliners marching with a racist banner that reads – “crush Chinese, jail Ahok.”

In response to the Bhineka Tunggal Ika video, the governor’s detractors responded by stating it was incendiary and offensive to Muslims by showing them as extreme, popularising the hashtag #KampanyeAhokJahat or “Ahok’s campaign is evil.”

A member of the General Election Commission (KPU), Ida Budhiati, requested immediate action due to the controversial racial aspects of the video.

A group of lawyers Advokat Cinta Tanah Air reported the video to the Jakarta electoral authority, claiming it had “hurt Islam.” Moreover, others noted it violated a 30-second time limit on campaign videos according to electoral regulations. It was subsequently taken down.

The campaign team re-released the video on Tuesday night, meeting time restrictions and importantly – without the controversial “ganyang Cina” scene.

Taking down the video and reposting a doctored version suggests Ahok’s campaign team “aren’t entirely convinced themselves as to whether it’s an effective strategy this close to election day,” Wilson says.

In the lead up to the election, Wilson says Ahok’s opponents from the “religious right [will] continue their vitriol against the Bhineka campaign, without irony, as provocative, stirring up racism and insulting to Muslims.”

SEE ALSO: Five arrested as Jakarta hardliner rally draws fewer than expected


Ahok meets with some senior members of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Islamic organisation on April 12, 2017. Source: Twitter @basuki_btp

Countdown to round two

Ahok’s appeals to pluralism and tolerance may yet pay dividends.

A spokesman for the Centre for the Islamic and Statehood Studies, Arif Susanto, said on Tuesday he found no problem with the video and that its message was merely to “appreciate the difference” existing in Jakarta.

The Islamic mass organisation Ansor Youth Movement endorsed the incumbent last Friday, stating, “We strongly reject a candidate for governor who supports radical Islam and hardline Islam.”

The organisation – affiliated with the world’s largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – offered to accompany Ahok and Djarot on election day to ensure their voters were not subject to intimidation by right-wing groups.

“We are used to them saying kafir (infidel), we are used to them being hypocrites. But when they threaten the order of the Indonesian republic and democracy, we will definitely oppose them.”

The people of Jakarta will go to the polls on April 19, ending one of the most divisive Indonesian election campaigns in recent memory.