The recent general election in Indonesia had a touch of déjà vu. In both 2014 and 2019, it was Joko Widodo taking on Prabowo Subianto; in both the elections, Widodo, also known as Jokowi, was declared the winner by the Indonesian General Elections Commission (KPU); in both the elections, hardliner former general Subianto rejected the election results and declared himself the winner; and in both the elections, he challenged the results at the Constitutional Court of Indonesia.
Despite all these parallels, there is a critical difference between these two elections: the bloody riots that broke out on the bustling streets of Jakarta, and some other cities, in the wake of Subianto rejecting the election results beginning May 21.
Till the recent bloodshed, Indonesia’s young democracy—which came into existence after the resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto in 1998 after a three-decade rule—had seen little election-related violence. One might wonder what had happened this time around that led to the recent violent protests in Indonesia.
To understand the recent riots, one needs to look back at the first major political crisis of Jokowi’s previous term—the protests that rocked the country’s capital in 2016. As reported by many local and international newspapers, including The New York Times, while campaigning during the bitterly fought gubernatorial election, the popular incumbent and Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), a Christian of Chinese descent, cited a verse from the Holy Quran at a public gathering, while trying to suggest that he understands why some people may not vote for him which did not go down well with the Muslim community that accounts for the majority of the population. Hardline Muslim groups that already nurtured a dislike for Ahok because of his religion and liberal policies did not let go of this opportunity. They took to the streets together, forming a movement called the 212 Action, demanding the removal of Ahok.
The radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a Muslim group which had previously only organised small rallies against Ahok in Jakarta, started staging demonstrations with a newfound fervour, rallying support from other Muslim groups, calling for the punishment of Ahok, and soon the streets of Jakarta were full of people, many from outside the capital, chanting slogans seeking Ahok’s trial. It did not take long for the protests to spiral and eventually Jokowi, Ahok’s biggest ally, had to leave his side.
The matter of fact remains that the “double minority” Ahok had always been a target of not only many Muslim groups but also a powerful group of political elites who considered him a threat and an outsider. Ahok was not a career politician, rising from the ranks and file of a specific political party; he was an independent politician who had received the backing of Jokowi, first as his deputy as governor of Jakarta, and later was endorsed to run for governorship.
Ahok’s liberal policies and his hardline stance to clamp down on corruption were a matter of contention for the political establishment. It has been reported by many independent sources, including Australian academic Damien Kingsbury in his Deakin University blog , that in the lead-up to the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign, a former army general of Indonesia, Suryo Prabowo, made threats saying that Ahok should “know his place lest the Indonesian Chinese face the consequences of his action.” If true, such comments only go to show the almost racist attitude a political quarter of Indonesia nurtured towards Ahok.
Ahok did pay the price for his transgressions against the established order: he not only lost an election that he should have won easily, given his success as governor of Jakarta, but he was also slapped with a two-year prison term by the Indonesian court.
Many analysts see the fall of Ahok as a worrying sign of a possible reemergence of hardline Islamist ideology in the politics of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. The dichotomy of the aspiration for a pluralistic democratic society and a traditional way of life dominated by conservative Islamist beliefs has been a bone of contention between the conservatives and the reformists since the independence of Indonesia in 1945. In order to address this wedge, secular Muslim political leaders like Sukarno and Hatta convinced fellow members of the Preparatory Committee for Indonesian Independence (PPKI) to adopt the Pancasila, a philosophical theory for the new state of Indonesia that encompassed the values of monotheism and nationalism.
Later, Suharto’s “New Order” regime muzzled the powers of the Islamic political parties over time; he merged them into the United Development Party (PPP) and made them adopt the Pancasila as their ideology.
However, the growing influence of parties like Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the 212 movement that led to the fall of Ahok and the increasingly hardline Islamist narratives of politicians like Prabowo Subianto might signal the reemergence of Islamist ideologies in the pluralistic democracy of Indonesia.
According to an article published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in the wave of the systematic circulation of disinformation on social media during the 2019 election campaign, Joko Widodo has been portrayed as a closet Christian who would steer the country away from Islam. According to the same source, in another doctored video, the leader of the Indonesian Solidarity Party, an ally of Jokowi, was shown inviting people to eat pork with her, whereas in reality she was only inviting people to eat noodles.
Both Jokowi and Subianto rode high on their narratives on religion during the election campaign. In order to consolidate support from Muslim voters, Jokowi, to the disappointment of many of his liberal allies, chose the 75-year-old Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as his running mate. Many see Amin as the most influential Muslim figure in Indonesia.
Subianto, following his 2014 playbook, has challenged the recent election results in the Indonesian Constitutional Court, and if the court decides in favour of Jokowi, like it did in 2014, then he will have the tough challenge ahead of steering the country towards growth with all parties on board, in the light of the Pancasila. Winning the most divisive election in the history of Indonesia is only the beginning of a long and arduous journey ahead of the winning candidate.
A day after Ahok lost the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, US Vice President Mike Pence, during his Indonesia visit, said, “Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world.” According to international media, including the CNN, he further added, “In your nation as in mine, religion unifies—it doesn’t divide.” Given what had happened just the day before, the vice president’s comment could not have been more ironic.
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.
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