Protect pluralism in Jakarta governor’s race

Should secularism be abandoned, the world will have lost a role model of moderate, tolerant, Islam, while Indonesia’s democracy will be in jeopardy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 1:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 1:17am

Indonesia has long been a model among majority-Muslim nations, praised for its religious tolerance and transition from authoritarianism to democracy. But that reputation could be tarnished if Islamic conservatives hold sway over the election of the governor of Jakarta, perhaps the second most powerful political position in the nation after the president.

A second-round run-off after last Wednesday’s voting pits the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian popularly known as Ahok, against Islamist-backed Anies Baswedan, a former education minister. Hanging over the April poll is a blasphemy trial brought against Purnama, who, depending on the sentence, could face dismissal from office and a jail term. Moderate politicians and Islamic leaders have to ensure that radicals are not allowed to set the agenda.

Purnama is popular among Jakartans for policies that tackled corruption and improved access to education and health care. But he made the mistake during campaigning of referencing the Muslim holy book the Koran, giving Islamists an excuse to accuse him of insulting their religion. Demonstrations led by far-right extremists drew up to 500,000 people, prompting police to file blasphemy charges. But despite the allegations, he still garnered 43 per cent of the vote.

Jakarta governor election a ‘litmus test’ of Indonesian Islam

There is no less likely governor of the capital of the country of 263 million people, 86 per cent of them Muslim, than Purnama. He is among the 8.8 per cent of Indonesians who are Christians and 1.2 per cent who are ethnic Chinese. Nearly all of the nation’s political and military elite are Javanese, but he is from Sumatra. His political style differs markedly from other leaders; whereas they tend to have high ideals and do little to serve the average Indonesian, he is a no-nonsense action-taker.

Purnama’s predecessor as governor, President Joko Widodo, is a committed pluralist. But there has been a steady increase in intolerance towards minorities, particularly in rural areas. The protests and blasphemy charges highlight the shift, even though Muslim moderates are the majority. In the circumstances, the election for Jakarta’s governor has taken on significance that extends far beyond the capital.

Indonesia’s motto is “unity in diversity”, a sentiment upheld by a constitution that embraces religious and racial tolerance. Should pluralism and secularism be abandoned, the world will have lost a role model of moderate, tolerant, Islam, while Indonesia’s democracy will be in jeopardy. Widodo and other leaders have to do their utmost to protect what has served the nation so well.