A political controversy surrounding Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly referred to by his nickname “Ahok”, has been snowballing in recent months and could have profound political implications for Indonesia in the days ahead.
Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and the first ever non-Islamic governor of the province of Jakarta, is a key political ally of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo.
After he took office Ahok gained substantial popularity among his people due to his pledge to fight corruption and improve public services.
The popularity came even as his identity as a Chinese and a Christian touched a nerve among many Islamic fundamentalists in the country.
Things could have gone smoothly for Ahok, had it not been for a remark he made during a campaign speech back in September last year over a commandment in the Quran.
What he was trying to do in that speech was to criticize some religious conservatives for misunderstanding or even misrepresenting that commandment on leadership in Islamic society in order to persuade Islamic voters not to vote for him.
Unfortunately, his remark was later quoted completely out of context by the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), a highly influential Islamic fundamentalist group in the country, and the footage of his speech was put on the internet.
In that video clip, which was cleverly edited, Ahok is shown to be talking in such a way as if he was attacking the Quran itself.
As expected, the clip provoked a fierce public backlash from among the Islamic majority in the country, and tens of thousands of people took to the street in Jakarta demanding Ahok’s resignation and calling on the authorities to try him for blasphemy.
The controversy sparked by Ahok has caused quite an embarrassment for President Widodo, given their close relations.
Besides, the uproar against Ahok could be just a prelude to an even more severe political onslaught mounted by the religious right against Widodo himself, whose reformist approach to governing his country and tough stance towards corruption have rattled the cage of many vested interests.
Many believe the disaffected Islamic conservatives are just using Ahok’s remark as a pretext to undermine Widodo’s credibility.
Widodo’s chances of getting re-elected will definitely be undermined if Ahok is eventually removed from office and succeeded by a conservative Muslim.
So, what can the president do in response in face of the onslaught mounted by the religious right against him?
Some believe he might look to the military for support, thereby giving rise to a resurrection of the military’s active intervention in Indonesian politics or even a military dictatorship like the one during the Suharto era.
As a major power in Southeast Asia, if that scenario does indeed play out, it will definitely have far-reaching political implications for the entire region.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 12
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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