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Identity politics in Indonesia and the road to the 2019 general elections

On 2 December, upwards of 40,000 people gathered around Jakarta’s iconic National Monument to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the protests which saw blasphemy charges laid against the then Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. The rally, dubbed as a ‘reunion’, was organised for the ‘212 Alumni’—the over 500,000 people that attended the anti-Ahok protests in the exact same spot just over a year ago. Although the rally drew an audience large enough to fill the pathways leading up to the National Monument, it was a clear disappointment in comparison to the fervour and sheer masses seen during the Ahok saga.

Roughly coinciding with the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad on 1 December, the rally began with a predawn prayer and finished with a midday prayer. During the rally, Rizieq Shibab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)—a far right Indonesian Islamist political organisation that formed part of a coalition of Islamist groups advocating for Ahok’s prosecution—called for a Sharia-based Indonesia in a recorded sermon played to attendees. Rizieq is reportedly in exile in Saudi Arabia, with Indonesian police naming him as a suspect in a defamation and pornography case.

Another key player who made an appearance is the current Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan. Baswedan, formerly part of current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet, took the prestigious governorship as an independent in the run-off election following Ahok’s blasphemy-stained gubernatorial run. Ahok, who succeeded Jokowi as Governor of Jakarta in 2014, ran for the 2017 gubernatorial elections with the backing of Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Unsurprisingly, Baswedan was backed by Jokowi’s likely opposition in the 2019 general elections, the Great Indonesia Movement Party’s (Gerindra) Chairman Prabowo Subianto.

So how did the secular-Gerindra backed Baswedan—known for representing moderate and tolerant Islam—end up speaking alongside an organisation known for its hardline interpretation of Islam and vigilantism? And more importantly, what insight can this provide on the road to Indonesia’s 2019 general elections?

Baswedan is clearly engaging in a very tight balancing act—both his concurrent appeasement to the FPI crowd and disassociation to them is a testament to this. In the lead up to the gubernatorial elections earlier this year, Baswedan came under fire for giving a speech to the FPI in an apparent attempt to court the conservative vote in light of his rival’s ongoing blasphemous downfall. Baswedan also sparked controversy during his inauguration speech by using of the term pribumi, meaning native Indonesians (excluding Indonesian-born Chinese), to suggest that it was time to take back control of the country from colonial influences—another clear appeasement to the conservative vote.

On the other hand, Baswedan has also made attempts to distance himself from groups such as the FPI. In November, the lawyers of the FPI leadership expressed disappointment that Baswedan didn’t make an appearance at an event commemorating the 4 November 2016 anti-Ahok protests. In the lead up to the 2 December 212 reunion rally this month, Baswedan initially distanced himself from the event, remaining ambiguous about whether or not he had given the green light to issue a permit for the rally to go ahead.

Baswedan did “cave” in attending the 212 reunion rally, delivering a relatively tame speech in comparison to Rizieq. This demonstrates that although Baswedan’s personal beliefs may not necessarily be compatible with the FPI’s, he is certainly willing to exploit them for electoral gains—or is it the other way around?

The FPI will continue to exploit political situations by placing itself at the forefront of issues impacting Indonesia’s devout-Muslim community. Doing so further adds to the FPI’s support base, with successes such as the Ahok saga both legitimising their cause and bringing them closer into the fold, away from their traditional perception as being on the fringes of “mainstream” political Islam. Most recently, the FPI led a rally outside the US Embassy in Jakarta on 11 December in response to US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem move.

In the lead up to the 2019 general elections (whereby both legislative and presidential elections will be held concurrently), the FPI’s influence will likely be most felt at the provincial level—this is where their extensive grassroots networks and human capital will count. Whilst Jokowi’s PDI-P and Prabowo’s Gerindra fight for seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly, as well as for the Presidency itself, an emboldened FPI will be seeking to further entrench its influence into the fray of mainstream political Islam.

Politicians seeking to further their electoral ambitions, from the local level up to the gubernatorial level at least, will likely seek to court the Islamic vote through engaging with groups such as the FPI. After all, they’ve already seen it succeed with Ahok.

Patrick Dupont is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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