A troubling election in Jakarta

Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has a new incoming governor. Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education, bested incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok). While results of the April 19 election have implications for future leadership races in Indonesia, the most important element of the vote is the growth of religious intolerance in the country. Radical Islam appears to be ascendant in Indonesia, an extremely worrisome development.

Forecasts that Ahok would prevail in the ballot were upended by a campaign against him led by radical Islamist groups. Those groups charged Ahok, a Christian, with blaspheming by mocking a Quranic verse during a campaign rally last September. Even though leading Islamic scholars dismissed the charge, the Indonesian Ulama Council, the country’s supreme Islamic group, issued a ruling (a fatwa) that concluded Ahok was in fact guilty. The radicals used that ruling to get millions of people to join anti-Ahok rallies, which in turn prompted the Indonesian government to open its own investigation into the charges and resulted in a blasphemy trial.

Anies was quick to exploit those developments, casting himself as an “Islamic candidate” and used that label to court the Muslim vote — 85 percent of Jakarta’s registered voters. Banners appeared in mosques that discouraged Muslims to vote for Ahok, and various incidents — in one case, a woman who died after voting for Ahok in the first round was denied a Muslim burial — revealed a powerful strain of intolerance in Jakarta.

Tentative tallies have shown Anies winning 58 percent of the vote, and Ahok claiming just 42 percent. The results will have implications for national elections. The win provides Anies with a platform to consolidate support for a presidential run in 2019. His tenure as governor in Jakarta provided the current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, with the exposure and experience to prevail in the last ballot. Many Indonesians consider Anies a better challenger to Jokowi than others also expected to run against the president: He is younger, more telegenic and he has proven capable of tapping the Islamic vote.

The more important element of this outcome is the growing impact of Islam in Indonesian politics. Prior to the democratic transition that followed Suharto’s fall in 1998, successive governments had focused more on development than religion. Indeed, Indonesia was often touted as the poster child for “developmentalism,” technocratic development programs that included nationalist and statist features. The “Berkeley Mafia” had more political power in Indonesia than many religious leaders.

Also central to the period was the articulation of a form of Islam that was more inclusive and tolerant than many of its Middle Eastern and South Asian variants. The moderate form of Islam was touted as a model for other Muslim societies following the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. It was also enshrined in Pancasila, a form of pluralism that was part of Indonesia’s official founding principles. Pancasila calls for equality among all Indonesia’s ethnic and religious groups. Muslims, despite constituting an overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s population, enjoy no special status in the country.

This election would seem to undercut that principle and appears to confirm both increasing militance and intolerance among the Islamic faithful and growing activism among Islamic hardliners in Indonesia. There are growing numbers of Islamic prayer groups and study circles in public universities, calls for women to wear veils and rising numbers of regulations that restrict the rights of political minorities. There are more demands to implement Shariah law in Indonesia as well. The fact that intolerance would succeed in Jakarta, where education and income levels are higher than elsewhere in Indonesia, suggests that such tactics will spread still further.

Another argument claims that Ahok’s loss could reflect his status as Chinese, an ethnic group that has been blamed for having disproportionate economic success. A third theory blames Ahok for running a poor campaign, and failing to expand the number of his supporters. Since taking office, his approval ratings ranged between 30 and 40 percent, and he failed to engage voters on the issues that mattered to them — apart from Islam. According to this theory, the focus on Islam, while understandable, actually antagonized moderates.

Anies must find a way to tack back to the center and govern as a traditional Indonesian politician. Riding a militant Islamic wave could threaten secularists and more moderate Islamic politicians. That would divide Indonesia and risk violence.