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.

Announcing CAUSINDY Grants

CAUSINDY is excited to announce a new program to help CAUSINDY delegates to make even more of an impact in the bilateral relations and get their ideas into action: CAUSINDY Alumni Grants. CAUSINDY provides funding and support to incubate ideas led by delegates and alumni, to help get delegates’ ideas of the ground.

 “By providing the grants and supporting their initiatives from incubation to launch we will see collaboration and impact beyond the conference”.

— Karina Akib, co-founder and advisor

Recently, three delegates gathered for a half day telkomtelstra workshop with experienced mentors from the digital space to work on initiatives from CAUSINDY 2016. Jane Ahlstrand, who dialed in from Brisbane, and John Cheong-Holdaway joined to expand jembARTan, a platform to connect Australia and Indonesia through arts. While, Celia Finch represented Kantin, an initiative led by Rey Sihotang and Stephanie Arrowsmith.

“I left the workshop filled with so much hope and motivation. The input we recieved from professionals across a range of fields helped us work towards not only getting our project off the ground but also ensuring its sustainability. The JembARTan  project just got very real!” — Jane Ahlstrand, 2016 delegate.

Are you a current delegate or alumnus? The CAUSINDY team is open to hearing about your idea and helping to get it ready to apply for a grant, please contact the key point of contact for this program, Karina Akib at karina.akib@causindy.org

Writing postcards with Rumah Cerita

By Aqmarina Andira, Content and Presentation Designer at telkomtelstra and delegate to CAUSINDY 2015 in Darwin.

14666234_10208761430527273_9137115011175449447_nUnderstanding the importance of people to people relationship in strengthening the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia, a group of CAUSINDY Alumni, Marlisa Soepeno, Dicky Wallad, Gabriel Mukuan, and Nurina Savitri came up with an idea to conduct CAUSINDY Alumni Community Engagement Program by connecting children from Rumah Cerita, a non for profit creative writing center for children which is co-founded by Aqmarina Andira, 2015 CAUSINDY delegate, with students from Braemar College where Rebecca Gregory, also 2015 CAUSINDY delegate, teaches Indonesian language. The program is aimed to initiate an early cross cultural understanding between children in Indon
esian and Australia by exchanging stories and experience through postcard writing workshop.

The session began with an icebreaking Pictionary games, where CAUSINDY Alumni introduced themselves by drawing their profession on the board, and continued with a sharing session where the children could ask further questions about CAUSINDY Alumni as well as the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia. Expanding their knowledge about professions and learning about the importance of international collaboration in education, trade, migration, and culture, the session inspired not only the children but also the Alumni who participated in the event.

14708352_10208761427647201_1116843891111544942_nGetting creative by reading, drawing, and writing a reply for their new friends in Australia who is trying to learn to speak Indonesian Language, the children from Rumah Cerita were very enthusiastic with the program. They practiced to write English, introduced batik pattern and Indonesian famous landmarks in their drawings, as well as shared personal stories about their life, their favorite things and their most memorable experiences.

Overall, it is hoped that the program will continue to help improve bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia, promote language exchange, contribute to social and cultural understanding from early age, as well as to create awareness of the importance of storytelling and literature in both countries. It is also hoped that the CAUSINDY Alumni Community Engagement Program can be held in a more sustainable manner by conducting other activities that can benefit communities both in Indonesia and Australia.