The trial for blasphemy of Jakarta’s Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as “Ahok”), has thrown into sharp relief key issues in Indonesian politics: Islamism, racism and the status of the presidency. But most of all, it has posed questions about the nature and viability of Indonesia’s much vaunted but less examined “democracy”.

At base, the trial of the governor of a city of some 10 million people reflects not so much whether he has broken a particular law — which, on face value, he has not. It does reflect, however, whether judicial independence will give way to what amounts to mob rule.

Mass demonstrations in Jakarta, which have resulted in Ahok’s quick arrest and charge with the crime of blasphemy, suggest the latter.

In 2014, then-deputy governor Ahok — an ethnic Chinese and Christian — succeeded to Jakarta’s governorship when then-governor Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) resigned to run for the presidency. Facing elections in 2017, Ahok’s political opponents have criticised him for being corrupt, coarse and, in particular, for being Christian in an almost 90% Muslim country.

Indonesia is, formally, a multi-religious state, in which five official religions are recognised: Islam, “Christianity” (Protestantism), Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism. While there have been some exceptions to Muslims occupying senior positions, religion remains a vulnerability.

In the case before the courts now, Ahok has been challenged for his use of a phrase from the Koran’s chapter “The Table Spread”, 5:51, that Muslims should not be ruled by Jews or Christians. Ahok said that the verse, being used against him, was incorrectly interpreted.

This led hardline Islamists to use the opportunity to claim he had committed blasphemy. Blasphemy is a crime under Indonesian law, attracting up to five years’ imprisonment.

[Psst, don’t look now, but Islamic fundamentalism is taking hold on our doorstep]

Moderate Muslims have since said that Ahok’s statement was not blasphemous. However, almost half of Indonesians polled have said they believed that Ahok had committed blasphemy, even though 85% of those same people admitted they did not know what he actually said.

There have also been claims that mass rallies against Ahok were hijacked by Islamist extremists. The Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante jihadi organisation, has been public in leading the demonstrations.

Fueling the controversy, too, is many ethnic Malay Indonesians’ long-standing dislike of ethnic Chinese, of which Ahok is one. Ethnic Chinese have long been victims of racist pogroms in Indonesia. That many Chinese are also Christian has exacerbated such tensions.

The third element of this situation is that Ahok’s religion and ethnicity is being used for overtly political purposes in the lead-up to Jakarta’s 2017 elections. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, it would seem Ahok’s chances of being re-elected are greatly diminished by his trial.

The outcome of the trial itself is critical, given that a rational assessment of Ahok’s utterance of the phrase from the Koran could not be construed as blasphemous and would mean, therefore, that he is not guilty of blasphemy. However, at stake is in part the presidency of Ahok’s former boss, Jokowi.

A guilty verdict would quell the public protest, end his political career and be a travesty of justice. Indonesia’s corrupt courts would fall to a new low in giving way to public pressure rather than due judicial process. It would also mean that Jokowi would be spared some of the opprobrium by association.

A “not guilty” finding would, however, be likely to result in a significant public backlash. In the first instance, this backlash would be against Ahok, but also against Jokowi. In part, while this situation is an assertion of Indonesian Islamism, it is also seen as a challenge to Jokowi’s ineffectual grip on the presidency.

Jokowi has been, almost from the outset, a hostage to political forces outside his control. His initial populism did not translate into longer-term structural support, and Jakarta’s pool of political sharks has been circling ever closer to the flailing president.

Jokowi’s distancing himself from his erstwhile political partner is, in this respect, widely seen as reflecting his own political weakness. Jokowi may be of the view that he cannot save his struggling former colleague if he cannot save himself.

[Jokowi hailed a beacon of hope, but could be a shrinking violet]

What this also demonstrates is that Indonesia’s traditional and still powerful powerbrokers are in no mood to make easier a struggling president’s life. It also shows that, while parts of the traditional power structure will not tolerate too much rioting in Jakarta, they might also be looking to 2019 for a “stronger” leader.

Former military hardliner and ex-son-in-law of former President Suharto General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto lost the 2014 elections to Jokowi with 48.9% of the vote. Prabowo is closer to being an autocrat than a democrat, but his chances of political success could now be growing for 2019.

This assumes, of course, that Jokowi lasts as president until then.

*Damien Kingsbury is a professor of international politics at Deakin University and author of Politics in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Authority, Democracy and Political Change (Routledge, 2016).

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey