Wavering Tolerance And Gubernatorial Elections In Jakarta, Indonesia

Gubernatorial elections in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta have become a flashpoint for the fragile state of peace between Indonesia’s Muslim majority and its various minority groups. Jakarta’s Christian and ethnically Chinese Governor Basuk Tjahaja Purnama (widely known as “Ahok”) is running for election, having taken over for President Joko Widodo when Widodo left the Governorship in 2014. Ahok is widely perceived as an effective bureaucrat, and until recently, appeared certain to win a second term in office. However, late last year, he was recorded quoting a Quranic verse, which states that Muslims may not be ruled by non-Muslims and criticizing those who used it to argue against his leadership. Several conservative Muslim groups brought lawsuits against Ahok, claiming that he violated Indonesia’s strict blasphemy laws, which can carry sentences of up to five years in prison. Though they can theoretically be applied to criticism of any of Indonesia’s 6 major religions, these laws are disproportionately used to imprison members of Indonesia’s religious minority groups.

The first hearing in Ahok’s trial occurred on December 13 as hundreds of Muslim protesters gathered outside and called for the jailing (as well as the execution) of the governor. Ahok’s commentary on the Quran has sparked a national debate among Indonesian Muslims on the appropriateness of electing non-Muslim leaders. Consequently, Ahok faced challenges from two Muslim opponents, both of whom have echoed accusations of blasphemy and cut into Ahok’s support. An initial round of voting last week gave Ahok 43% of the vote, with his nearest challenger, Anies Baswedan at 40%. The two will face off in the second round of voting next month.

Baswedan’s reputation as a moderate Muslim was called into question when he met with members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a group that has publically supported the perpetration of hate crimes against non-Muslims. The group gained massive media attention when it spearheaded protests against Ahok in November, and its leader, Habib Rizieq, has since argued against non-Muslim political leadership in various national media outlets. The desire to see Ahok jailed is one that is echoed by otherwise moderate Islamic Groups, such as Nandlatul Ulama, which counts 40 million Indonesians as members. For Indonesian Muslims, Ahok’s candidacy raises bigger questions about the way they view Christians and other minorities living among them.

The stakes of such discussions are high. During times of escalating tension, Indonesian Muslims have killed thousands of Christians, but broader and more subtle discrimination has also become normalized. While most observers seem confident in Ahok’s odds of winning the upcoming second round of elections, discussion of his candidacy has undoubtedly mainstreamed a discriminatory thread in Indonesian politics that had previously seemed dormant. The story and conclusion of Jakarta’s election will likely be seen as one with grave consequences for broader dialogues on diversity and tolerance in Indonesian society, though its consequences cannot yet be fully assessed.