December 15, 2016 6:45 pm JST
Ken Ward

Jakarta protests complicate Widodo re-election prospects

Blasphemy trial of Indonesian president's former ally may help political rivals

Tens of thousands of Islamist protesters gathered at the National Monument in Jakarta on Dec. 2.

Massive Islamist-led demonstrations in Jakarta -- and the subsequent trial for blasphemy of the city's governor -- have changed Indonesian President Joko Widodo's prospects for re-election in 2019, and are likely to have a major impact on his behavior in the remaining period of his current term in office. Caught off-guard by the size of Muslim protests on Nov. 4 against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, popularly known as Ahok, Widodo came up with the sensible tactic of trying to co-opt the follow-up demonstrations. On Dec. 2 he appeared on the same podium as the principal organizer, Habib Rizieq, who chairs the radical and noisy Islamic Defenders' Front.

By doing so, however, Widodo risked further legitimizing this figure, whose extra-parliamentary movement has acted as a public nuisance and vigilante group on "morality" for two decades. It has benefited throughout from patronage from the police, and perhaps from the army. For example, the IDF took part in a raid on a sex party in Jakarta in late November, in cooperation with police officers.

In contesting the presidency in 2014 from his post as Jakarta governor, Widodo opened a new path to the presidential office. No previous president had been governor of the capital city, and as long as Purnama, his former deputy and successor, remained at his post Widodo had no reason to see a threat from that direction to his re-election in 2019. As a Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian, Purnama could not have stood for the presidency, even though he would have faced no constitutional barrier. Political considerations in Muslim-majority Indonesia would have sufficed to block him.

Widodo can no longer feel so safe. Purnama was put on trial in Jakarta on Dec. 13 for allegedly blaspheming Islam, barely a month after being charged. If he is found guilty he could face up to five years in prison, and would be unable to stand for re-election as governor in a poll scheduled to take place in February. Agus Harimurti, the elder son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is currently the stronger of the two other candidates contesting the election. If Harimurti wins, he will likely confront Widodo in the 2019 presidential campaign, with powerful support.

There is no secret about the Yudhoyonos' dynastic ambitions -- the couple's younger son, Edhie Baskoro, has long been secretary-general of the party Yudhoyono founded in 2004. The former president and his wife Ani will surely want their elder son, a former army major, to be elected president while they are still alive. Widodo believes, apparently with good evidence, that Yudhoyono surreptitiously backed the two demonstrations, probably assuming that Purnama's difficulties would benefit his son's political prospects. If Harimurti can retain the support of other political parties currently backing his bid for the governorship, he will be well placed to compete with Widodo in 2019. At least Widodo will think so. .

Widodo now appears to have abandoned Purnama -- a sign, perhaps, that the Jakarta governor has failed to serve the president well. Purnama is a competent and imaginative administrator who is disadvantaged by his brash, even arrogant, personality. That may have led him, unwisely, to quote from the Koran several times, prompting the charge of blasphemy. The Purnama case also comes at a time of rising Indonesian hostility toward China and the Chinese. Indonesia's armed forces commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, has played a key role in stirring up anti-China sentiment, which inevitably has an impact on attitudes towards Chinese-Indonesians. Gatot, an officer of considerable charisma, relishes giving public addresses, which makes it easy to follow his thinking.

He sees Indonesia at risk mainly from China and the U.S., two countries that he says covet Indonesia's natural resources. China is the more dangerous, in his view, because (he says) it sends drugs to Indonesia to "weaken" the Indonesian people. Another threat stems from China's illegal fishing activities. There have been several tense incidents over the past year of Chinese vessels being intercepted by Indonesian authorities while fishing off Indonesia's Natuna islands.

The Gatot factor

Gatot talks often of future global shortages of food, water and fossil fuels. Here as well, China is a greater threat than the U.S. because its population is much larger. Gatot made his stance brutally clear in a speech at a private Christian university on Nov. 11. He recounted a conversation he had held with Malaysia's defense minister, who had raised the prospect of a future food crisis in China that could prompt the outflow of a billion Chinese to neighboring countries.

Gatot said the minister had told him that, if this occurred, the Malaysian army could not stop such a vast horde. The military chief responded that this would not be a problem for Indonesia. The Chinese would have to reach Indonesia by sea, he noted. So he would simply have 10 cows killed and dumped into the sea to attract sharks, he continued, then he would "fire on the boats to create leaks and then they [the Chinese] would all be eaten by the sharks." The audience of university students applauded Gatot's bizarre story.

The attitudes the commander so often expresses could pose problems for Widodo's cultivation of China as a source of infrastructure investment and large numbers of tourists. Widodo might do well to find an excuse to remove him. Gatot no doubt sees himself as Indonesia's savior against external threats. Sooner or later, he will probably seek the presidency for himself.

If Harimurti becomes Jakarta governor in February, there is a danger that Widodo will approach government policymaking even more from the perspective of winning in 2019 than he has done so far. This will prompt him to avoid decisions with any potential negative domestic impact. He may also delegate more foreign policy articulation and foreign travel to Retno Marsudi, his foreign minister, since he probably sees that travel has brought him little domestic kudos. Alarmed by the Nov. 4 demonstrations, he cancelled a visit to Australia that was due to start the following day.

Widodo still has many assets. He is unpredictable, and often takes decisions on impulse. He should certainly not be written off. He has, for example, been widely praised for recovering from his flat-footedness in November and for responding quickly to the mass rally in Jakarta on Dec. 2. It is too early to predict what the consequences may be of his decision to ride the tiger of radical Islam, however briefly. At the very least, though, it could intensify an atmosphere in Indonesia of growing intolerance toward religious and racial minorities.

Photos: Simon Roughneen

Ken Ward is a former Australian diplomat and Indonesia specialist.

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