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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.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, second from left, was walking after meeting demonstrators at the National Monument in Jakarta on Dec. 2.

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.

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