Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

When Islamic hardliners attacked a church under construction in Jakarta’s eastern suburb of Bekasi a few days ago, police arrived in force and were eventually forced to fire teargas to disperse the mob. Not long ago, they would have stood idly by and done nothing.

Police links to groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which have been used in the past as a proxy stand-over force to extract protection money from businesses, go back to the pre-democracy period under former dictator Suharto when Islam was otherwise repressed.

The difference now is police chief General Tito Karnavian, former head of the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit and widely viewed as an incorruptible professional. Hand-picked by President Joko Widodo last July, Karnavian will serve until 2023, a longer period in the job than any of his  predecessors.

A Muslim himself, Karnavian has often warned against what he calls creeping Islamic extremism, which targets religious minorities and is used by terrorist groups as ideological justification for bombings and other violent acts.

Man in the middle: Indonesia’s National Police chief General Tito Karnavian. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

“Unfortunately, democracy is being misused by certain groups to limit other people’s freedoms. Take for instance those with Wahabi thinking,” his spokesman noted earlier this year, referring to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative strand of Islam.

Karnavian has already laid down a marker by firing the previous West Java police chief for failing to protect Christians from a Muslim mob. This month he appointed the first Papuan, a Christian, to take charge of a district on Java.

Educated in New Zealand and Singapore, with a doctorate in terrorism-related strategic studies, the 52-year-old native of the Indonesian island of Sumatra has his work cut out as religious tensions rise ahead of the April 19 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

The showdown between incumbent governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian currently on trial for blasphemy, and former education minister Anies Baswedan, who has the backing of a coalition of hardline and conservative Muslim groups, combines an explosive mix of populism and Islam.

Explosive mix: Muslim hardline protesters cover their faces as police fire tear gas. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Widodo S Jusuf

The police have already told the National Movement to Support the Indonesian Ulema (GNPF-MUI) to drop its plan to “monitor” all 13,000 polling stations, a move Purnama’s supporters fear will intimidate voters into casting their ballots along religious lines.

Led by hardline clerics, GNPF-MUI was the organizer of last year’s mass demonstrations against Purnama over the blasphemy case, which two months later is still dragging on in court and could deprive him of the governorship even if he wins in April.

Looking back at past blasphemy cases, Azyumardi Azra, director of the State Islamic University’s graduate school, believes Purnama will be jailed for two or three years – a sentence that would mean his running mate, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, assumes the post.

Purnama and Hidayat need to capture more than their share of the 17% of the electorate who voted for Agus Yudhoyono in the first round of voting on February 17, which saw the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knocked from the race.

Popular: Incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo 

Agus’ poor performance in the television debates persuaded conservatives to throw their support behind Baswedan in the final fortnight rather than split their vote. In the end, Purnama won the first round 42.9% to 40%.

The April 19 run-off may be even tighter. Bahana Research, a financial services and research company, currently calls the race a tie, with Baswedan holding a 50.6% to 49.4% edge. That translates into 62,000 votes, virtually meaningless when 1.5 million voters are reportedly undecided.

New opinion polls are expected in early April, but with 70% of first-round voters saying they are satisfied to some degree with Purnama’s work performance, it is clear that a large number allowed religious affiliation to triumph over more rational factors.

That can be put down to grassroots propaganda spread by conservative clerics in tight-knit Jakarta neighborhoods. Jakarta election officials have already reported a rise in intimidation ahead of the run-off, including a threat by some mosques not to pray over the dead whose families openly voted for Purnama.

In one widely-documented case condemned on social media, a mosque refused to accept the body of an elderly woman until her relatives had signed a statement pledging to vote for the Baswedan ticket on April 19.

Hardline choice: Anies Baswedan (R) and his deputy Sandiaga Uno (L). Photo: Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/ via Reuters 

Azar says such tactics are haram (forbidden), but it is an indication of the lengths hardline clerics will go to influence the election outcome. It will also be a test of the willingness of individual district police commanders to enforce the law.

Purnama appears to have received a boost with the recent meeting between Widodo, whose Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) is Purnama’s leading political backer, and ex-president Yudhoyono, head of the fourth-ranked Democrat Party.

Relations between Widodo and Yudhoyono had been cool before they recently shared tea and cakes on the palace veranda, mostly over the former president’s financial backing for last year’s anti-Purnama rallies that Widodo suspected were also aimed at him and his bid for re-election in 2019.

Government sources say what drove the former president to heal the rift was his bitter falling-out with ex-presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and chief sponsor of the Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno ticket.

Hear no evil: Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Yulius Satria Wijaya 

The sources say Yudhoyono and Prabowo had originally agreed to a joint candidate to take on Purnama, but six hours before the deadline for candidates to register, the ex-president and all other Democrat Party leaders turned off their phones.

From then on, Prabowo is said to have directed all his energies to undermining Agus Yudhoyono’s candidacy. Although he is not a devout Muslim himself, hailing from a family of Christians, Prabowo has been adept at playing the Islamic card for political effect over the years.

First, it was in his power struggle with then-armed forces chief Wiranto in the late 1990s and more recently as a partner-of-convenience with the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and United Development (PPP) parties in the post-2014 parliamentary opposition.

All this suggests there is now a much stronger political undercurrent to the gubernatorial election, underlined by a slimmed-down and more energetic PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has immersed herself in the details of the campaign.

Election strategist: PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Andika Wahyu

Unhappy at the way Purnama was relying more on his own volunteer workers than the party machinery, the former president has divided the sprawling city into grids and assigned individual PDI-P lawmakers to take responsibility for each of them.

At the same time, Hidayat, a 54-year-old Javanese Muslim, has been given the task of taking the campaign to neighborhood mosques, often dressed in a sarong to connect better with local communities.

All this is a far cry from the 2014 presidential campaign when Megawati and key loyalists, resentful that a rural upstart was preferred over her, sat on their hands for weeks while Prabowo made up electoral ground over Widodo.

Prabowo’s 2019 presidential ambitions may explain his choice of financier Sandiaga Uno as Baswedan’s running mate. Sandiaga was his original choice as gubernatorial candidate, but when Baswedan was approached as a running mate, he persuaded the Gerindra leader he was better equipped for the main role.

Prabowo’s businessman brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, took the 2014 defeat much harder than Prabowo, perhaps because he had reportedly sold most of his offshore oil and gas assets to fund the campaign. Since then, Hashim has told friends he is not prepared to fund another presidential bid.

Electoral extremes: Barbed wire separates supporters and protesters of governor Basuki Purnama. Photo: Agoes Rudianto/NurPhoto

What seems clear is the Jakarta gubernatorial race outcome will not be a good barometer for what will happen at the 2019 elections, given the different factors that will be in play in the rest of populous Java and beyond.

Azra, the respected Muslim intellectual, says while Islam and populism may be a potent mixture in Jakarta, it will not be repeated elsewhere in a country where only 12% of the population consistently vote for Sharia-based parties.

Then there is the youthful Kanarvian, a very different police chief who not only seems to take his job as head of internal security seriously, but also has little time for Islamic radicals disturbing Indonesia’s religious harmony.

Last December, when two district police commanders, one in Jakarta, the other in Yogyakarta, responded to an Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) edict by issuing circulars banning the display of Christmas ornaments, Kanarvian stopped them in their tracks.

The MUI, he declared, was not a government policy-making body. That is a far cry from the influence it had during the decade-long rule of Yudhoyono, Widodo’s predecessor, from where much of the current wave of intolerance can be traced.

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