Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, sister of former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, shows her book to reporters in Jakarta on April 4, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, sister of former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, shows her book to reporters in Jakarta on April 4, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

If the downfall of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama wasn’t enough, a moment of carelessness now has the youngest sister of ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri facing blasphemy allegations as well.

With only one year to go before national legislative and presidential elections, Sukmawati Sukarnoputri’s misstep could have far-reaching repercussions as Islamic conservatives look for any way to undermine President Joko Widodo’s bid for re-election.

The third daughter of founding president Sukarno, Sukmawati was reported to police on April 3 after reading a poem at a Jakarta fashion show in which she drew unfavorable comparisons between traditional ballads and calls to prayer.

The four-stanza poem was in fact written in 1999, just a year after the resignation of authoritarian leader president Suharto, but before the birth of democracy ushered in a Muslim revival that has now taken on worrying political overtones.

Despite a tearful apology, Sukmawati faces five years’ jail for an alleged infraction that some Islamic figures claimed was more serious than the blasphemy charge that effectively ended Purnama’s promising political career.

Sisters at loggerheads

It is not clear, however, whether the case will generate the same emotional outpouring as it did with the deposed governor, an ethnic-Chinese Christian now serving a two-year prison sentence for what the court decided was a blasphemous criticism of a Koranic verse.

For a start, Sukmawati, 66, is a Muslim. More importantly, she and a third sister, Rachmawati, 67, have long been at loggerheads with the 71-year-old Megawati going back to when she supposedly broke an understanding among the siblings that they would not become involved in practical politics.

The two younger sisters have both been publicly critical of Megawati, with Sukmawati saying she can’t be compared to their “very special” father and Rachmawati accusing her of capitalizing on his popularity to gain support for the PDI-P, which won the country’s first democratic election in 1999.

Sukmawati’s political career has been less than stellar. She failed to gain representation in that election, then saw her renamed Indonesian National Party (PNI) of Marhaenisme win a single seat, in Papua, in 2004 – only to lose it five years later.

Marhaenisme is a vaguely socialistic political ideology created by her charismatic father; it is both anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but in adhering to democratic rights it also confusingly frowns on liberalism and individualism.

Accused of treason

A lawyer, Rachmawati served on the National Democrat Party’s advisory board from 2012 to 2014 and subsequently joined presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) in 2015.

She was arrested with eight other people on the eve of the December 2, 2016, anti-Purnama demonstration and accused of treason, but was never indicted and the case appears to have been quietly dropped.

By using a blasphemy charge to bring the Sukarno name into disrepute, the so-called 212 Alumni Presidium, the same coalition of groups which brought down Purnama in early 2017, may be hoping to haul back Widodo’s commanding lead in the polls.

But when the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and its allies who make up the conservative coalition sought to stage a mass demonstration against Sukmawati in downtown Jakarta on April 6, it drew only a few thousand protesters.

For the FPI, there is an element of revenge to its actions. In late 2016, Sukmawati lodged a formal complaint against the radical group’s firebrand leader, Rizieq Shihab, for allegedly insulting her father and Pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology.

Police declared Shihab, 52, a suspect in January 2017, but he fled Indonesia four months later after he was additionally charged with sending sexually-explicit messages on the internet, an offense under the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law which he had championed.

He has lived in exile in Saudi Arabia since then, refuting the pornography allegations and claiming his return to Indonesia would lead to unrest and bloodshed if police made any attempt to arrest and detain him.

While Shihab’s absence may have taken the steam out of the conservative coalition, if the Purnama case has done anything it is to show Islamists they can achieve their social and political goals by working through Indonesia’s democratic system.

Certainly, politicians are now more aware of the latent power of identity politics, underscored by Widodo regularly entertaining groups of Muslim scholars at the palace and his apparent search for a 2019 running mate with credible Muslim credentials.

A Muslim with an every-man persona

But Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sydney Jones points to disunity in the 212 coalition, noting that its two main components, cleric Bachtiar Nasir’s Salafi-inspired activists and the FPI-led conservative traditionalists, do not share the same theology, support base or strategy.

Jones says in a report released last week that while the alliance was able to spark concerted outrage against Purnama, it will be a lot harder to target Widodo, a Muslim with an every-man persona who remains hugely popular in the vote-rich heartland of Central and East Java.

“The Islamists have shown they can mobilize huge numbers of demonstrators if they can persuade the mainstream their faith is under attack,” says Jones. “The challenge for the government is how to manage them as a legitimate political voice without capitulating to their most strident elements or trampling on minority rights.”

Local government elections scheduled for June 27 in 17 of the country’s 34 provinces are being called a bellwether for the 2019 national polls, notably in West Java, where religious conservatives delivered Widodo his third heaviest defeat in 2014.

But Gerindra’s Central Java gubernatorial candidate Sudirman Said, a former mines and energy minister, does not believe what happened in Jakarta can be translated to his home province, saying the constituents there are politer and more reserved.

“At the end of the day, most people will be moderate,” he told a recent gathering. “But we do have to pay attention to the growing power of Muslims. While using Islam has proven to be effective, it should not be used to destroy an opposing candidate.”

Also, the fact that gubernatorial and district candidates are often supported by a mix of different political parties, in one eye-opening case pairing PDI-P with the opposition Gerindra, means the religious factor is likely to be largely neutralized – at least for now.