Since a court found outgoing Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama guilty of blasphemy against Islam earlier this month, Indonesia’s minority groups have expressed disappointment at President Joko Widodo for not doing more to support his close ally.
Purnama, a Christian and an ethnic Chinese better known by his Hakka nickname Ahok, is seen by many as the embodiment of Indonesian pluralism at work.
His recent electoral defeat as he sought a second term, amid a campaign marred by his prosecution and intense religious-racial sentiments that reverberated across Indonesia, was made all the more bitter when he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on May 9.
“Two thousand years ago, an innocent man in Israel was sentenced to death for blasphemy against Judaism through pressure from the religious establishment and the mobs,” wrote an Indonesian Facebook user of Javanese Christian background, “and now in 2017, an innocent man has been sent to jail for blasphemy in Indonesia.
“As with what happened 2,000 years ago, Ahok’s indictment was made possible because our highest leader, in the face of mob pressure, decided to wash his hands, as Pontius Pilate did in Jesus’ case,” he continued, before declaring that he would abstain from voting in the next presidential election.
Mr Widodo, known as Jokowi, and Purnama had been political allies and shared the same supporter base: Moderate urban Muslims and minority groups. Mr Widodo had run alongside Purnama for the governorship of Jakarta in 2012 and won.
Following Mr Widodo’s election as President in 2014, Purnama, his Deputy Governor, replaced him. Many of their supporters had even hoped that the duo would run side by side in the 2019 presidential election.
Given their history, and given that many see Purnama’s verdict as unjust, supporters thought the President would come to his aid.
Yet, in the face of Mr Widodo’s palpable silence throughout the trial and nonchalance at the eventual guilty verdict — the judges sentenced Purnama to a jail term longer than that demanded by the prosecutor — it is understandable that many perceive the President to have thrown his political ally to the wolves.
IMPLICATIONS FOR 2019
Will this disappointment erode support for Mr Widodo, particularly among minority groups? What ramifications will this have on his re-election bid in 2019?
That Mr Widodo has so far kept a safe distance from Purnama’s blasphemy case is undeniable. As far back as December last year, the President, through Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Wiranto, stated that he would not interfere.
On the day of the verdict, Mr Widodo was in Papua, the easternmost province of the country, some 3,781km away from the capital city.
Later that day, he released a message urging everyone to respect the verdict.
The government’s statement of non-interference was, however, superfluous since the executive is constitutionally forbidden from meddling with the independence of the judiciary.
It can, however, set the tone of the proceedings through the prosecutor’s office, which is part of the executive branch.
The fact that it needed to be spelt out suggested that the President, out of deference to the Muslim constituency, was anxious not to be seen as partial to Purnama.
At the same time, Mr Widodo’s government was also anxious not to alienate the Governor’s supporters.
When, during a vigil in solidarity with the incarcerated Governor on May 9, lawyer and social activist Veronica Koman Liau addressed the crowds and declared that “the Jokowi regime is worse (in terms of its human rights track record) than that of SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his predecessor), to the cheers of the protesters, the Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo was swift to act.
The minister demanded a public apology from Ms Liau and threatened her with a defamation suit if she failed to comply.
Another important means of generating public support for the President has been a remnant of his 2014 campaign days — a network of internet volunteers and popular blog writers such as Mr Denny Siregar. These cyber mouthpieces have continued to defend the government and its policies in the realm of social media.
As of last year, 137.6 million Indonesians had joined various social media networks and the importance of the cyber proxies affiliated with Mr Widodo’s inner circle should not be overlooked.
In Purnama’s case, they argued that the President had no choice but to let Purnama be sent down because openly defending him would only provide his political enemies with an opening to depose him.
One outlandish claim even suggested that it was Purnama’s own wish to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the nation.
These cyber proxies have also gone on the attack — by portraying people such as Ms Liau as “fifth columnists” working to undermine the President in the lead-up to the 2019 election.
Mr Widodo’s courting of the Muslim majority (88 per cent of the population) is to be expected. But how important are Indonesia’s minority groups electorally to the President? In the 2014 presidential election, a survey by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia in July found that 46.39 per cent of Muslim voters supported Mr Widodo, compared with 47.3 per cent for his rival, Mr Prabowo Subianto.
However, the opposite was true among the voters among the minority religions. Just under 52 per cent said they supported Mr Widodo, compared with only 23.3 per cent for Mr Subianto.
With only a small margin of victory against Mr Subianto (53.15 per cent to 46.85 per cent), Mr Widodo’s presidency may have come about thanks to the minority voters.
Nor can the increasingly active political participation of Indonesia’s minority groups be underestimated. Ongoing spontaneous candlelight vigils in solidarity with Purnama across Indonesia and among the Indonesian diaspora the world over are drawing considerable numbers.
In a vigil in Surabaya last Friday, around 60 per cent of the estimated 10,000 participants were Chinese Indonesians. In Medan, where the organisers were predominantly Batak Christians, the composition was similar.
Notably, the minority groups and civil society activists who organised the vigils within and outside Indonesia were more or less the same group of people who volunteered for and supported Mr Widodo’s campaign in 2014.
Purnama’s blasphemy case and its subsequent guilty verdict have no doubt presented President Widodo with a conundrum.
A survey conducted post-Jakarta-election by Nurjaman Centre for Indonesian Democracy found that if a presidential election were to be held now, Mr Subianto would garner 35.16 per cent of the votes, beating Mr Widodo’s 31.24 per cent.
The survey suggests that the President’s deliberate distancing from Purnama’s plight has failed to earn him more support from the Muslim constituency.
What is certain is that it has created division and disappointment among the ranks of his supporters from minority groups. How that plays out in 2019 remains to be seen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Johannes Nugroho is a businessman and writer from Surabaya.