In the end, the final cynical blow came the day after ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama’s stunning loss in the April 19 Jakarta gubernatorial election, when prosecutors downgraded the blasphemy charge that was primarily responsible for his defeat.
While Purnama may have been personally relieved, it left observers and conspiracy theorists wondering whether it had somehow been the game-plan all along to dump a governor whose religion was too big a sticking point for many mainstream Muslims.
Reducing the charge to hate speech rather than blasphemy, the prosecutors also only sought a one-year suspended jail term and two years’ probation — a sentence that would have still allowed Purnama to assume the elected post if he had won.
To crown it all was the spectacle of Hidayat Nur Wahid, ex-chairman of the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), lambasting the Western media for crediting hardline Islamists and their conservative allies for Purnama’s downfall.
It would be difficult to find another reason after a relentless, four-month-long grassroots campaign which at one point drew more than 200,000 people to an anti-Purnama rally in downtown Jakarta, the biggest demonstration in decades.
Purnama had made things easy for his Islamist opponents by rashly telling voters on a small island in Jakarta Bay not to be tricked into believing a conservative interpretation of a Koranic verse his rivals had used to persuade them they should not vote for a non-Muslim.
The PKS and failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) were the two main backers of winning candidate Anies Baswedan and his running mate Sandiaga Uno, who, according to one quick count, stormed home by 58.5% to 41.9%.
That matched a February poll in which 57% of Jakartans thought Purnama was guilty of blasphemy, even though more than 70% also believed he had been doing an effective job as governor of the Indonesian capital.
Looking ahead, Baswedan’s victory may have emboldened Prabowo, 65, into making another bid for the presidency in 2019, in a repeat of the 2014 race where he ran the eventual winner, Joko Widodo, surprisingly close.
Religion likely won’t have the same role on the national stage, where Sharia-based parties have historically won only 12%-14% of the vote. But if voters still support the secular state, the Jakarta election is a worrying sign of how easily they can be led.
Going back to his power struggle with armed forces chief Wiranto in the 1990s, Prabowo and his chief lieutenant, House deputy speaker Fahdli Zon, have been adept at playing the Islamic card, even if most of his family members are Christian.
In 2014, to their discomfort, he initially had just two allies – PKS and United Development (PPP), the other Sharia-based party. It was only when the National Mandate Party (PAN) joined his coalition at the last minute that he was able to recruit party leader Hatta Rajasa as his running mate.
Now, he appears to have a powerful backer in his ranks — billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic-Chinese media and financial services tycoon who is partnering with US President Donald Trump in a swank golf resort development overlooking Bali’s iconic Tanah Lot temple.
Currently head of the new United Indonesia Party, Tanoesoedibjo, 51, has often said he may try to run for the presidency. But after watching the fate of Purnama at the hands of Islamic conservatives, he must surely be having second thoughts.
With Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, reportedly unwilling to fork out the same cash he did for Prabowo’s 2014 failed campaign, something he is known to have taken badly, it may now fall to Tanoesoedibjo to head up the funding effort if the Gerindra leader does decide to mount another campaign.
President Widodo also has some strategic thinking to do, with his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) demonstrating the same organizational frailties during the Purnama campaign as it did in 2014.
That was despite the more prominent role played by party leader and ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who in recent weeks has dropped hints that she is thinking of stepping away from active political life.
Always treated as little more than a PDI-P functionary, Widodo could decide to switch horses, or at least seek a wider endorsement. Indeed, one veteran Golkar Party member perversely sees Widodo as the real winner on April 19.
“He’s now free of any IOUs with the lady (Megawati),” he said. “He did his best to try and get Ahok elected and he failed. C’mon, this is real politics. Now he can go with any party that could boost his chances of re-election.”
Golkar has problems of its own, faced with losing party boss Setya Novanto, who has been implicated in a US$170 million corruption case. Novanto is close to Widodo’s chief political adviser, maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan.
If he is forced to relinquish his party post – and that of parliamentary speaker – his replacement is likely to come down to two choices: Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 54, or deputy chairman Nurdin Halid, 58, a former Sulawesi legislator.
The genial son of a former Suharto-era minister, Hartarto is not seen to be tough enough. That would leave Halid, whose political reputation is not much different from that of Novanto, but who reportedly has similar access to the palace.
The Golkar party has no-one who looks remotely presidential at this stage, which gives Widodo the advantage of a wider base going into the 2019 campaign, where he is likely to command sustained popularity in the vote-rich Java hinterland.
Just as importantly, the president is strengthening his control over the police, where loyalist commander General Tito Karnavian’s term theoretically extends until 2023, and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).
A former head of the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit, Karnavian plans to add 10,000 new recruits to the 400,000-strong police force and launch a major restructuring effort that will allow area commanders more flexibility.
TNI chief General Gatot Nurmantyo, whose recent tiff with Australia and reputed links to Islamists got him in hot water with Widodo, is expected to be replaced by newly-appointed air force commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, 53.
Nurmantyo is due to retire next March, but he may be replaced earlier by a man who will also have at least four years at the helm, and previously commanded the airbase in Widodo’s hometown of Solo when he was mayor.
The March 16 appointment of the former commander of the presidential bodyguard, Major General Bambang Suswantono, 51, to head the 20,000-strong Indonesian Marine Corps is another interesting development.
Shoring up Widodo’s political base would be another step. The president may not be a diehard Muslim, but short of finding another religious context his opponents will have to focus on something else, like a faltering economy, to bring him down.