A worker pulls down a campaign poster of Indonesia's then presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his running mate Yusuf Kalla after a rally in Cirebon, Indonesia, June 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
A worker pulls down a campaign poster of Indonesia's then presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his running mate Yusuf Kalla after a rally in Cirebon, Indonesia, June 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla has never been happy being shunted to the sidelines, but his barely disguised support for winning Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswedan appears to have created an open split with President Joko Widodo.

Kalla has sought to stay in the background, calling on supporters of deposed Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama to accept his conviction and two-year prison term on the politically charged blasphemy charge that observers believe cost him a second term.

But what to make of the leading role Kalla’s nephew, Erwin Aksa, played in running Baswedan’s operations center on one of the properties the vice president owns in the leafy up-scale suburb of Kebayoran Baru?

Aksa is the son of Aksa Machmud, a former deputy speaker of the Regional Representatives Council, the country’s upper house, and a prominent businessman from Kalla’s hometown of Makassar, South Sulawesi’s province capital.

Kalla himself is a former chairman of the South Sulawesi chapter of the Islamic Students Association (HMI), part of the conservative Muslim organization responsible for two mass anti-Purnama demonstrations held in the capital last year.

Indonesian Islamist groups rally in Jakarta against governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro

Both are members of the Golkar Party, one of the five partners of the ruling coalition led by Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), which supported Purnama’s candidacy.

Although Kalla wisely stayed away, both Mahmud and estranged former Golkar chairman and top businessman Aburizal Bakrie were present at Baswedan’s victory celebrations.

To be sure, Kalla is not a significant political threat to Widodo, hailing as he does from a splinter group of Golkar, the party of former long-time strongman leader Suharto. Kalla chaired the party from 2004-2009, mostly on the virtue of serving as vice president during former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first term.

But as Yudhoyono discovered, Kalla has the capacity to make problems as battle lines are drawn ahead of the 2019 legislative and presidential elections, when political alliances and marriages of convenience begin to fray at the edges.

Then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L) talks to Vice President Jusuf Kalla at a ceremony marking Independence Day on August 17, 2009. Photo: Reuters/Supri

Widodo and Kalla have been noticeably distant since the controversial May 9 verdict, only crossing paths once, at the airport, when the vice president was returning from England and the president was headed to the summit of Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia.

At most recent meetings, Widodo’s two constant companions have been armed forces commander Gen Gatot Nurmantyo and national police chief Gen Tito Karnavian, a tell-tale sign that the security services are firmly in his corner.

Aides have reportedly sought to smooth over their rumored differences, most recently at a Golkar leadership meeting called last weekend to publicly reaffirm the party’s unwavering support for Widodo.

Yet Widodo is clearly troubled by what happened on May 8, the day he left for Papua with reassurances that the prosecution’s decision to reduce Purnama’s charge from blasphemy to hate speech would be followed and upheld by the North Jakarta District Court.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla on October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

The night before, his closest advisers had told him that the governor could look forward to two years’ probation and no time behind bars. “I did all I could. It was out of my hands,” Widodo told visitors upon his return to the capital.

Why the court departed from accepted practice seems to have baffled even top palace aides. But while religion is at the core of the verdict, the case was always a political hot potato with the potential for manipulation and intimidation in equal measure.

Dangerously, that blend of religion and populist politics is likely to remain front and center as the country enters the 2019 election season. “It’s been a shock to everyone in the elite,” says one veteran politician. “It’s going to be a main theme in politics in the coming years.”

Basuki “Ahok” Purnama holds up his ballot before casting his vote in the Jakarta governor election on April 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Look no further than West Java’s gubernatorial election, scheduled for next April in the heat of the run-up to 2019. Analysts say the contest will be an even bigger political battleground and barometer of Widodo’s popularity than Jakarta’s hotly contested gubernatorial election.

Surrounding the Indonesian capital on two sides, West Java is Indonesia’s most populous province, embracing Bandung – the country’s third biggest city – and Greater Jakarta’s vote-rich dormitory suburbs of Bogor, Depok and Bekasi to the east and south.

What sets it apart is that 97% of its 46 million-strong population is Muslim, nearly 10% higher than the national average and topped only by Aceh (98.1%), Gorantalo (97.8%) and West Sumatra (97.4%). Around 88% of Indonesia’s 257 million population is Muslim, according to a 2014 census.

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin

It still isn’t clear who the party surrogates will be in the West Java race, with incumbent governor Achmad Heryawan barred from running after serving the maximum two terms.

The opposition Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) and the Islamist Justice and Prosperity (PKS) parties are expected to join forces in nominating deputy governor Deddy Mizwar, 62, a Jakarta-born actor and film director, to succeed Heryawan.

His main rival is likely to be Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, who ran as an independent in 2013 and later allied himself with PKS; he has now crossed over to the National Democrat Party (Nasdem), one of the other partners in Widodo’s ruling coalition.

Kamil, 45, a Muslim and US-trained architect, has won a reputation for turning Bandung into a so-called “smart city,” using an apps-based system to change the way it manages its transport and waste disposal.

A recent Indo Barometer survey of five potential West Java candidates had him leading Mizwar by 22% to 14%. Despite not being an official candidate, Kamil says he has already been the target of numerous false attacks based on religious issues.

Mayor of Bandung city Ridwan Kamil (R) rides his bicycle in Bandung on western Java island on April 23, 2015. Photo: AFP/ Bay Ismoyo

In what may be a taste of things to come, one story circulated on social media claimed he had issued construction permits for 100 places of worship for non-Islamic religions during his four-year tenure, when the real figure he says was only five.

In a clear effort to burnish his Muslim credentials, Kamil circulated on Twitter a meeting he had with visiting Sheik Adil al Kalbani, a former imam of the Mecca Great Mosque.

Widodo took a hammering in West Java in 2014, losing by 4.6 million votes to Gerindra rival Prabowo Subianto, thanks largely to the latter’s support from the PKS and the like-minded United Development (PPP) parties.

The president-to-be picked up most of his votes along the northern coast, but took his worst hits in the south, particularly around Sukabumi and Tasikmalaya, where Darul Islam rebels fought to turn the newly-independent republic into an Islamic state from 1949-1962.

It was Widodo’s third heaviest loss behind the provinces of West Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara and Gorantalo and came only a year after Heryawan was returned to office with 32.9% of the vote, ahead of PDI-P candidate Rieke Diah Pitaloka, who went on to win a seat in the 2014 legislative elections.

Former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (C) contests Widodo’s election win at a rally outside the Constitutional Court in Jakarta on July 25, 2014. Photo: AFP

Pitaloka’s running mate, anti-graft campaigner Teten Masduki, became Widodo’s chief of staff in a late 2015 Cabinet reshuffle and remains in the post formerly held by current maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan, the president’s key political adviser.

Deciphering West Java politics is problematic. Heryawan and Mizwar came out ahead in 16 of the province’s 26 districts and municipalities.
Yet the hard-line Islamic PKS took only 13 of the 100 seats up for grabs in the legislative elections the following year, trailing PDI-P (22) and Golkar (16).

Three years later, sources close to the palace say Widodo sees West Java as a key electoral test case, despite being under mounting political pressure after his ally Purnama’s resounding defeat.

The last reliable poll, taken in March, showed Widodo with a 57.8% popularity rating, with only 21.7% saying they would vote against him if a presidential election was held now. The same poll had Prabowo well behind, but the retired general has proved before that he’s strong in the home straight and willing to play the religious card as needed.