Jakarta election campaign tests Indonesia-Australia relations


By David Willis

One year ago, my local newspaper in Adelaide published an op-ed by Chris Kenny titled ‘Australian politicians could learn a lesson or two from Indonesian Governor Ahok about avoiding spin and red tape to get things done.’

Today the once-popular incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, is facing a likely loss at being elected in his own right on 19 April, after a divisive election campaign that portends further challenges for Indonesia-Australia relations in the future.

Ahok’s popularity plummeted in the months following the accusation in September last year that he had criticised the Koran, specifically the al-Maidah 51 verse which is often interpreted to mean that Muslims cannot be led by a non-Muslim. Recovering somewhat as the case played out, Ahok was still able to take a plurality of the votes, but not enough to win outright, in the gubernatorial election’s first round in February.

Ahok will now face off against former Education Minister Anies Baswedan in the second round, who has been all the willing to stoke the flames of division in the city. Anies campaigned at the headquarters of the once-fringe Islamist vigilante group FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) in January and has refused to repudiate the FPI’s assertion that Muslims cannot be led by a non-Muslim; stating only “as a Muslim, obviously I obey al-Maidah verse 51.”

Currently polling suggests that Anies is more likely than not to win on 19 April. His win will be widely read as the success of divisive tactics in Indonesian politics, with repercussions for the 2019 presidential election and Indonesia’s image in Australia.

When President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo won Indonesia’s presidency in 2014, he did so despite charges that he himself was in fact both a secret Christian and of Chinese descent. Jokowi now finds himself in a position where he has to publicly accommodate Islamist organisations like the FPI.

His ally Ahok has been charged with blasphemy and Jokowi felt it necessary in December to join the FPI and others for prayers during the December mass rally; like Anies, normalising the once fringe group.

Jokowi is now in a position where he will likely need to either further accommodate these voices or risk facing an opponent willing to employ the tactics of division in 2019.

Speculation has already risen over the future ambitions of Indonesian National Armed Forces commander Gatot Nurmantyo, the architect of the most recent Australia-Indonesia spat and a proponent of conspiratorial thinking about foreign powers, including Australia, launching proxy wars on Indonesia.

As a double-minority, both ethnic-Chinese and Christian, Ahok has faced a constant level of discrimination since assuming the leadership of Indonesia’s capital city province in 2014.

During the 2012 election Ahok and his running mate, now-President Jokowi, both were subject to attacks on their ethnic and religious identity, falsely in the case of the Javanese Muslim Jokowi.

Upon taking office after Jokowi’s election to the presidency FPI rejected the non-Muslim Ahok as illegitimate and declared one of their own governor. However, they were generally dismissed as being merely on the fringe of Indonesia’s democracy.

By the middle of 2016, Ahok looked well placed to win re-election and a full term in his own right. Despite criticism over his unrefined style of communication, the governor was broadly popular amongst Jakarta residents for his programs to improve the city.

However, as an independent politician with an active reform agenda, Ahok represented an existential threat to entrenched political and business interests.

Ahok’s campaign for re-election was turned upside down in September last year, when addressing constituents in the Thousand Islands district, he criticised his opponents’ use of al-Maidah 51.

An edited video of the governor’s address, implying that Ahok had criticised the Koran itself was shared widely on social media by his political opponents.

Political pressure quickly mounted with a series of mass demonstrations lead by Islamist organisations, including FPI which used the controversy to catapult themselves into the political mainstream, calling for Ahok’s gaoling on grounds of insulting the Koran. The pressure resulted in Ahok being charged for blasphemy in an ongoing trial.

The campaign took a particularly ugly turn last month, when banners appeared across a number of the capital’s mosques exclaiming that “This Mosque Refuses Islamic Burial for Defenders of Blasphemers.” These however were in turn pulled down by the provincial government and banners proclaiming “This Mosque is Prepared for Islamic Burial for All Muslims” came up in a number of places.

No matter the outcome of the gubernatorial election result on the 19th, Indonesia’s elites have shown themselves more than willing to exploit social divisions, while the electorate have proven themselves susceptible to such tactics.

The image this has portrayed of Indonesia in the Australian media has been largely negative, compared with a year ago. Indonesia is already perceived in Australia to be very religious, but not very inclusive. The Jakarta elections have only deepened these perceptions and will make it even harder to develop stronger bilateral ties.


David Willis is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at Flinders University and a CAUSINDY 2016 delegate.

This piece has been written exclusively for CAUSINDY.