Indonesia: Increasing Tensions amid Political Jockeying

7 December 2016 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Approximately two hundred thousand protestors flooded the streets of Jakarta on 2 December calling for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more commonly known as Ahok, to be jailed for blasphemy. The protests were similar to protests held on 4 November (as covered in the Strategic Weekly Analysis). President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who is known to be close to Ahok, unexpectedly attended the rally to partake in the Friday prayers until calling for protesters to disperse peacefully. Prior the rally, eleven people were detained on suspicion of plotting to topple the government. Among those arrested was daughter of former President Sukarno, Rachmawati Sukarnoputri. The rally was followed by a counter protest on 4 December calling for tolerance and unity, with approximately thirty thousand in attendance.


The most recent protest against Ahok is the third so far, even though the Jakarta Governor already submitted himself to police on 8 November and the case has been sent to the Attorney-General’s Office (AGO). As noted by the Jakarta Globe, Ahok cannot be detained until he is found guilty. Pre-trial detention in Indonesia can only occur when the offence warrants a jail term of over five years; Ahok is being charged with blasphemy under Articles 156 and 156A of the Criminal Code, which carry four- and five-year jail terms, respectively. While the police proposed charging Ahok for hate speech, which carries a maximum jail term of six years and would allow for his pre-trial detention, the AGO denied the proposal. The court proceedings, which will commence on 13 December, could take some time to resolve if Ahok moves to appeal the court’s decision. Public pressure to detain Ahok, however, is unlikely to ease. According to ABC News, Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spokesman Munarman said in a Facebook post: ‘After action once a month, our next fight is once a week attending the trial of Ahok… We will see who can fight once a week, how many people would come to the court, is it going to be 20,100 people, or 1,000 people and so on’.

While opinion polls are showing steadily declining support for Ahok, a recent poll conducted by Jakarta-based Charta Politika shows that Ahok still enjoys a respectable support base. According to the poll, which was held 17-24 November, 28.5 per cent of respondents said that they would have voted for Ahok if the gubernatorial election were held that day. That figure is close behind rival Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is sitting on 29.5 per cent support. Perhaps related to this are growing fears of increasing violence and racial tension towards the Chinese-Indonesian and Christian minorities. At the protest for tolerance on 4 December, speakers from the pro-government coalition urged Indonesians to focus on the “real” issues such as poverty, rather than spending time stoking racial and religious tensions. If Ahok does get re-elected, however, it is unlikely that sentiments of peace and tolerance will be the reaction from the hard-line Islamic groups, including Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and FPI, that are thought to be behind the anti-Ahok protests.

An additional and interesting element in the latest anti-Ahok protest was the arrest of eleven people on suspicion of treason. According to police, the suspects were planning to incite the crowd into committing violence and occupying the parliament building. Among those arrested were several high-profile people who have openly spoken out against Ahok and Jokowi, including Rachmawati, musician Ahmad Dhani and two former army generals. Most of the people detained, however, were released due to a lack of evidence.  As noted in the New York Times, some analysts believe that the arrests are a result of political jockeying. Jokowi himself has criticised the anti-Ahok protests, saying that political actors are using the protests to serve their own ends; that is, to politically weaken Jokowi, who is known to be close to Ahok. The arrests, therefore, are seen by some as a move by Jokowi to shut down some of his opponents.

Regardless of the possible political jockeying behind the protests, the accusation of blasphemy, the anti-Chinese slogans seen in the protests and a recent attack on a Christian church in Central Java, point towards increasing ethnic and religious tensions in Indonesia.

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