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Indonesia: Jakarta votes as Ahok blasphemy trial continues

19 April 2017

Jakarta votes as Ahok blasphemy trial continues

Today, 19 April, Jakarta's citizens have voted for their governor for the next five years - between Christian incumbent Basuki Cahaya Purnama (known as Ahok) and Anies Baswedan (former Minister of Education and Culture) - amid heightened religious and racial tensions.

Ahok is on trial for blasphemy after he accused his political opponents of misusing Quranic verses to stop Muslims from voting for him. Ahok had been labelled an 'infidel' by these opponents in Jakarta's elections.

In the first round of elections, held on 15 February, Ahok led with 42% votes, but this fell short of the 50% + 1 vote required in order to win the election, prompting the election commission to call for another round of voting.

In this round, his political opponent is the former Minister of Education and Culture, Anies Baswedan, who followed at a close second with 40% of votes.

Even if Ahok were to win this second round, he may still lose the Jakarta governorship if he is found guilty of blasphemy by the courts. According to Indonesia's law, a region head who is a defendant of a case must be suspended from office if the punishment exceeds five years. The Penal Code 156 and 156 A used in Ahok's case put each sentence to a maximum of 4 and 5 years of imprisonment respectively.

This scenario has many Indonesians asking if this could be the real face of Indonesia. Is the country still the democratic and tolerant country that Indonesians are proud of? Or has it become a conservative country whose laws are becoming strictly compliant with Islamic rules?

The second round of elections in Jakarta can be seen to be a battle between pluralism and fundamentalism in the country. After all, Jakarta is known as the 'mini Indonesia' and represents the nation's diversity.

Fighting Corruption and Reforming Jakarta

Ahok was not elected as Jakarta's governor but rose to the position when the former governor, Joko Widodo, was elected president in 2014. During both their administrations, Jakarta has been reformed into a much better city. Flooding and heavy traffic, which it was famous for, has been effectively reduced, and the city's transportation has improved.

In this run for governorship, Ahok pledged to continue to improve Jakarta. He said, "We will still provide free access to health, education, better housing and transportation. But my biggest goal is for a clean administration and to educate the people about good governance."

Ahok's battle against Jakarta's corrupted bureaucratic core has attracted many supporters who long for upright officials. He rose to be the people's hero and was awarded Asia's Best Governor in 2015 by Globe Asia magazine.

But this battle has also attracted enemies — the old breed of political actors and officials, who had enjoyed being corrupt and untouched by the law for so long. Now they feel threatened by his determination and boldness to fight corruption. They want to bring him down. The fact that Ahok is a Christian and of Chinese descent, both attributes of minority groups in Indonesia, makes it easy to do that. And the weapon they choose to accomplish that goal - religion and fanaticism - has proven to be effective, as seen in other countries in south east Asia.

A radical Muslim group, the Islamic Front Defender (FPI), has been involved in political issues since 2009, although this was denied many times by its chief, Rizieq Shihab. It is public knowledge that political parties and actors have been paying FPI to get things done. Since Ahok became governor of Jakarta, FPI has strongly and clearly voiced their rejection of him, saying, "An infidel is not worthy to rule over Muslims."

During his trial on 21 February, hundreds of people from Islamic organisations protested in front of the legislative office to demand that Ahok be jailed immediately. Rizieq Shihab, who previously said he would not participate, eventually joined the protesters. "Are you ready to defend [our] country and religion? Are you ready to fight against communism?" shouted Rizieq, amidst great chanting and shouting of 'Allahu Akbar', which means 'God is great'.

Pressure has been mounting on the government to suspend Ahok. However, the Minister of Home Affairs, Cahyo Kumolo, refused to give in to the pressure, saying they will wait until after the public prosecutor announces the final verdict in the courts.

'I'm not afraid to lose my life'

At Ahok's first trial back in December 2016, Ahok looked upset and angry about his situation through the lenses of national TV cameras. At one point, the statesman was even caught crying. But he says that he is glad his case has allowed crucial questions to be placed before all Indonesians, and continues to trust in God.

He has said, "Our founding fathers created the nation as a secular republic, based on the concept of 'unity in diversity,' but they want to force the implementation of Islamic law. How come? So, I'm happy that history chose me for this position. I am not afraid of losing my position for doing what is right."

He also highlighted the importance of being true to God, who grants authority to kings and governments. "We must really have faith in God according to our religion. I have faith in Isa (Arabic name for Jesus). And I have faith of where I belong and where I will go when I die — and that's why I'm not afraid to lose my life. In all I've been through, Jesus has always protected me and provided for all my needs."

Please pray:

  • For Ahok to know God's presence with him, and for God to guide him and protect him
  • For God's peace to reign over the capital city, especially among supporters of both candidates.

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