Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Jakarta’s jeopardy

The Indonesian capital Jakarta’s first Christian governor conceded defeat to a Muslim former government minister in a vote this week that is seen as a test of the country’s secular character

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is an Indonesian politician who was serving as the 17th governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta and the second governor of Chinese ancestry in the predominantly Muslim archipelago. However, Jakarta’s first Christian governor conceded defeat to a Muslim former government minister this week in a vote that is being seen as a test of Indonesia’s secular traditions.

Indonesia is a multi-racial, multi-religious and secular nation. “We now will come together and forget this campaign. Jakarta is home for all of us,” Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, said in a televised address. “We understand that our supporters are disappointed. But don’t dwell on it,” he added.

Indonesia’s current brouhaha is a long way from meaning that the country is about to be ruled by Islamic Sharia Law. After riding a wave of growing religious conservatism to win the Jakarta gubernatorial election, a Christian candidate lost and his Muslim rival won.

Anies Baswedan, the winning candidate, is a moderate Muslim, a respected academic and a former university rector who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. However, he was criticised when he met publicly with Islamic groups during his election campaign.

The citizens of Jakarta had earlier voted for Purnama as their vice-governor in 2012. He is an Indonesian nationalist and is regarded as proof of the country’s secular mindset. With its new governor now in place, the Jakarta administration is set to begin testing purification methods for river water. The focus now is not on religion but on serving the public.

The plan is part of a long-term project to turn the capital’s rivers into sources of clean water, and this may have been uppermost in voters’ minds. Of the 13 rivers and streams in Jakarta, none are qualified for human consumption.

Meanwhile, Purnama used Twitter to bypass the traditional media, and he may have been rejected because of his religious affiliation. He has also been named in a case of alleged blasphemy in a country where 90 per cent of its more than 240 million people follow Islam and the national motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” or unity in diversity.

The case involving Purnama has caused uproar across the country in recent weeks and is being seen by some as a test of Indonesia’s commitment to religious tolerance. It began in December and seemed to dent Purnama’s support in the election campaign for governor, but more recently he had rebounded in the opinion polls, helped by middle-class approval of his efforts to improve the bureaucracy and tackle city traffic jams and flooding.

The announcement that he had been defeated by his Muslim opponent followed pressure by religious hardliners who earlier this month initiated mass protests across the country to demand that some popular figure be arrested and charged with insulting Islam. Some analysts believe the protests to have been politically motivated, though they have led to allegations of a wave of religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The Indonesian authorities have now decided to declare Purnama “a suspect and bar him from travelling abroad,” national Police Chief Ari Dono Sukmanto said. “After long discussions, we reached a decision that the case should be tried in an open court,” he added. Purnama had cited a verse from the Quran and said it had been used “to deceive voters” and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims.

Purnama’s rival Baswedan, who was dropped from the government after a reshuffle in mid-2016, had largely stayed out of the headlines as the other two candidates, Purnama and Yudhoyono, had fought a bitter campaign.

When the controversy over Purnama’s comments broke, he apologised, saying it had not been his intention to cause offence. Indonesia’s chiefly ethnic Chinese Christians are regarded as relatively wealthy members of society, and Purnama’s loss of the election has been viewed as an act of revenge against the rich. If found guilty under Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law, Purnama could face a maximum of five years in jail.

The case began after Purnama cited verses from the Al-Maidah sura of the Quran during his campaign. He was also vilified for talking about Islam during a visit to one of his constituencies in September.

Indonesia’s 17,000 islands have different religious affiliations. Some are Hindu, like Bali, and others are predominantly Christian, such as Irian Jaya and northern Sumatra. Java, the most populous and home to more than half the country’s people, is predominantly Muslim. Its largest city is Jakarta, the nation’s capital, making the position of governor symbolically very important.

Analysts believe that the religious divisions seen in the campaign could linger on and even turn into a proxy battle for the next presidential election in 2019. Half a century of modernisation oriented towards Western democracy in the country may now be on hold.

In Indonesia, many tribal groups do not use surnames. The country’s first president after independence from the Netherlands was simply called “Sukarno,” and the next one simply “Suharto”. Indonesia may have the world’s largest Muslim population, but it is officially secular and home to minority Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and other communities.

In this respect, Purnama’s downfall could mark the beginning of the end for Indonesia’s secularism, as he lost not only the capital in the elections, but also cast some of the blame on the Islamists.

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