By Max Walden
“DESTINY is in God’s hands,” said Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama on election night as he conceded the Jakarta gubernatorial election. “God gives power and God also takes it away.”
Even until the bitter end, religion defined the race for the next leader of Indonesia’s capital.
Ever since September last year when Christian Ahok made comments regarding the Quran whilst campaigning in Jakarta’s Thousand Islands, hardline Islamic groups spearheaded a mass movement to topple the incumbent.
The leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Habib Rizieq talks to reporters at court after the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 28, 2017. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta Indonesia’s vice president Jusuf Kalla said Friday he was disappointed with the foreign media’s depiction of the Jakarta election as a win for conservative Islam and religious intolerance.
Jusuf wasn’t wrong to say so. Headlines everywhere after Wednesday’s divisive contest said votes were driven by religious sentiment and the entire showdown was a referendum on the future of ethno-religious diversity in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
But it’s also impossible to deny the whipping up of religious fervour by hardline groups was a vital factor Ahok’s unceremonious fall from power.
A post-election survey by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting, a credible pollster, showed that 32.4 percent of Anies voters had chosen the candidate because they were the same religion as him.
Literally zero percent of Ahok voters said the same (notwithstanding that many of Ahok’s voters are, of course, Muslim.)
Despite the catapulting of religious issues to the centre of the Jakartan election, however, it was not only sectarian concerns that brought down the second-ever non-Muslim, Chinese governor in the city’s history.
Because here’s another vital factor: Ahok was not loved by everybody.
His detractors and opponents were from a broad spectrum of Jakarta’s diverse population, not only ultra-conservative Muslims who hated him based on identity politics.
Human rights activists opposed the governor for his unapologetic regime of large-scale evictions of slum dwellers to make way for development.
Ahok continues to unapologetically defend this policy, even though swathes of the poor who supported him in 2012 became Anies devotees after being forcibly relocated from the neighbourhoods they had lived in for generations, stripping them of their livelihoods.
They felt angry and betrayed.
Even after losing the election on Friday, Ahok declared at city hall that “normalisation” of the Ciliwang River would continue.
Further communities would be relocated upon completion of rusun public housing flats currently under construction that can accommodate 2,000 residents, he said.
Besides that, many simply disliked Ahok because they perceived him as arrogant and rude – undesirable qualities in a country like Indonesia where politeness and etiquette are paramount.
Some among the Chinese-Indonesian minority group worried that Ahok’s brash style and controversial comments regarding the Quran had fanned further xenophobic sentiment against their community.
A lot of people no doubt chose their candidate based on policy, not identity. One image shared during the campaign read, “We are of Chinese descent, we are non-Muslim, we choose Anies-Sandi because the business climate will be more conducive if Anies-Sandi win.”
“We are of Chinese descent, we are non-Muslim, we choose Anies-Sandi because the business climate will be more conducive if Anies-Sandi win.” Source: Twitter
It is also worth remembering that Ahok was never in the first place chosen as governor, rather coming to power after Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected president in 2014.
From square one, he ultimately lacked a popular mandate for his robust policy agenda of reforming the civil service and cleaning up corruption, addressing Jakarta’s systemic problems with traffic and flooding.
For too long during the campaign, Ahok’s team misjudged the power of his record in office to win votes.
Their strategy was to emphasis the governor’s achievements in reducing floods, building public transport links and improving quality of life.
But given that three quarters of Jakarta’s population approved of Ahok’s leadership in office, however that he couldn’t win 50 percent of the popular vote, signals the potency of other concerns.
It was only late in the campaign that Ahok and running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat’s team released material aimed at pulling Jakarta residents’ heartstrings – unleashing a series of videos that appealed to Indonesia’s nationalism and core values of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – unity in diversity.
"Ahok failed to run a savvy and cohesive campaign,” concluded Erin Cook in the Lowy Interpreter this week.
Assuming it was merely religious intolerance and racism that led to Ahok’s loss denies the strengths of Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno’s campaign.
As a former academic and one of Indonesia’s most successful businessmen, respectively, Anies and Sandiaga are widely respected, and regarded by many as charming, intelligent and articulate personalities.
Their political style no doubt particularly appealed to upper middle class Muslims in their wealthy, Muslim-majority heartland in South Jakarta.
But the extent of their popularity is highlighted by the fact that on Wednesday, they even won the most votes in North Jakarta, known for its significant ethnic Chinese population.
What’s more, the pair’s “Oke Oce” campaign was also clever and catchy, appealing to a broad range of voters from millennials to baby boomers alike.
So while it’s true the coordinated campaign against Ahok that successfully mainstreamed sectarian discourse played its part in his defeat, even without accusations of blasphemy and mass mobilisation in the streets by hardline religious groups, he may well have lost anyway.
This article first appeared in the 'Asian Correspondent' on 22 April 2017