Members of the Islamic Defenders Front at a protest against acting Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in Jakarta, November 2014.
Members of the Islamic Defenders Front at a protest against acting Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in Jakarta, November 2014.
Darren Whiteside / REUTERS

Around lunchtime on December 2, the skies opened over Jakarta. But the downpour was probably the last thing on Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s mind as he strolled the few hundred yards from the presidential palace to a nearby plaza, where an estimated half a million Islamist protesters were chanting for the arrest of one of his political allies. 

Such blusukan—casual walkabouts in markets and villages—were a key part of Widodo’s electioneering and made him seem a down-to-earth man of the people in voters’ eyes. All the same, the protesters were taken aback by the president’s gate-crashing, especially when he joined their ranks, which included some of Indonesia’s most hard-line Islamist leaders, for Friday prayers. 

“Jokowi,” as the president is known, commended the drenched crowd for assembling peacefully, interspersing his brief cameo with cries of “Allahu Akbar,” and prayed with Habib Rizieq Shihab, the head of the shadowy Islamic Defenders Front, known as the FPI, an Indonesian acronym. One protester, who gave his name as Ahmad, said that he was very surprised, but that “it was good that Jokowi spoke; it helps Indonesia be united.” Ahmad said that he had flown in from Bali, a majority Hindu holiday island, to attend the demonstration. 

The target of his and the other protesters’ ire was Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was deputy governor of Jakarta and was elevated to the governorship in 2014 when Widodo, who had held the post, became president. Purnama is a Christian of Chinese descent, a blunt and forceful outsider running the capital of the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla walk to pray with protesters in Jakarta, December 2016.
Antara Foto / M Agung Rajasa / via REUTERS

Purnama’s position running one of the world’s top five metropolises will be on the line in the next gubernatorial election in February 2017. But if the demonstrators have their way, he will be in jail before then for allegedly insulting Islam during a political rally in which he said that his opponents were using the Koran to justify voting against him.

A similar protest on November 4 ended in bedlam, when provocateurs tried to breach police lines around the palace, prompting Widodo to blame “political actors”—the president didn’t want to name names, leaving it to observers to fill in the blanks. The week before the November 4 protest, Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, felt obliged to tell media that he had nothing to do with organizing that event after suspicions mounted over the fact that his son would be competing against Purnama in the upcoming Jakarta election and the perception that Yudhoyono had a “live and let live” attitude toward Islamists during his 2004–14 presidency. 

Opposition to the Jakarta governor is a testing ground for potential opponents of the president before the next elections.

That same week, Widodo made a house call on the man he beat in the 2014 election, the former general Prabowo Subianto. The erstwhile competitors made a show of unity, ostensibly against the Islamists, while perched, for the cameras, on two of Prabowo’s horses. But Prabowo will be backing someone else in the February 2017 election: Anies Baswedan, who was Widodo’s education minister before a July 2016 cabinet reshuffle in which Baswedan was ditched to make way for a representative of one of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organizations, a 30 million-member-strong group called Muhammidiyah that opposed the November 4 and December 2 protests.

There was more surrealism on the morning of December 2. Police arrested ten people, accusing them of insulting the president and scheming to overturn the government. The idea, going by the cops’ account, was that the plotters planned to use the white-clad pious to storm government buildings and take over. There was no indication, however, of just how they would do this, given the thousands of security forces on the Jakarta streets, or that there was any appetite among the protesters—who spent the morning praying and listening to speeches—for storming the presidential palace. 

Among those lifted were a well-known musician-turned-politician and a daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. The latter detainee, Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, is the sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was president from 2001 to 2004 and, as leader of Indonesia’s biggest political party, is one of Widodo’s main political backers. If the plot sounded far-fetched, even farcical, that is because it probably was. “These people,” Wimar Witoelar, a former government spokesman, said of the plotters, “are not politically influential.”

Although Widodo was unlikely to be upstaged by bizarre-sounding conspiracies, the perception is that opposition to the Jakarta governor is a testing ground for potential opponents of the president before the next elections. “The protests are not just about Ahok,” said Witoelar. “Because Jokowi is popular, they are perhaps the last chance for potential opponents of Jokowi to get in on the game before the 2019 elections.” 

As things stand, the president is in a good position, with approval ratings of 60 percent to 70 percent, and Indonesia’s economy is projected to grow about five percent in 2016. But that is below the president’s hoped-for seven percent. Meanwhile, familiar problems such as corruption and inequality persist; in a recent Credit Suisse report, Indonesia was listed in as the fourth most economically unequal country in the world, with the richest one percent controlling 49.3 percent of the country’s wealth.

At a rally calling for the arrest of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta, December 2016. The poster reads: "Jail Ahok, blasphemer against the Koran."
Beawiharta / REUTERS

With poverty and inequality widespread, there are plenty of young men with little to do other than be cajoled into demonstration. And Purnama may well have added to the pool of potential recruits by his summary evictions of slum dwellers and relocation of street traders. But the last time Indonesians rose up against a government was after the 1990s Asian financial crisis ravaged the economy and forced longtime dictator Suharto out of office. Those conditions simply don’t exist in today’s Indonesia. “To overthrow a government, you have to have mass discontent, severe economic difficulties, and issues to rally the people around. The economy is not great, but all the same not too bad, while the government is quite popular,” said Witoelar. 

Indeed, in the days after each anti-Ahok rally, supporters of the embattled governor—and of the national government—gathered around a landmark traffic roundabout in the center of Jakarta, celebrating Indonesia’s diversity with dance and music by vividly coutured groups from across the archipelago. Indonesia's population of nearly 260 million is more than 80 percent Muslim, but it includes millions of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and believers of various animist or folk traditions. Scattered across 17,000 islands that arc a distance roughly equivalent to that between Alaska and New York live hundreds of ethnic groups, including the estimated 2 percent to 3 percent of the population that, like Purnama, trace their origins to China. Resentment against Chinese-Indonesians, who play a leading economic role and make up some of the archipelago's best-known tycoons, is a factor in the demonstrations against the Jakarta governor.

In the days after each anti-Ahok rally, supporters of the embattled governor gathered in the center of Jakarta.

It was this unwieldy country that Jokowi was supposed to helm when he took office two years ago. Making the task more difficult, at that time he faced an opposition coalition that controlled a majority of parliamentary seats and was seething over an election loss that Prabowo challenged in court. Testing the incoming president, the opposition made moves (ultimately futile) to end the system of directly elected local leaders that produced Jokowi, who was elected mayor of the central Java city of Surakarta in 2005, nine years before becoming Indonesia’s first non-elite, nonmilitary president. If the opposition had succeeded, it would have been a blow to Indonesian democracy, ending the chances of another outsider becoming president. 

But since 2014, the outsider Widodo has slowly established authority over the government, expanding his allies in Parliament and twice reshuffling his cabinet. Now his seemingly impromptu walk to the Islamist rally on December 2 is being seen as a shrewd, even ruthless, chess move by the president. “Jokowi seems to have chosen the pragmatic way,” said Bonar Tigor Naispospos, vice chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a Jakarta research organization. “He showed those hard-line groups who try to manipulate political tensions to pressure him that he can do the same.” 

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta, December 2016.
Iqro Rinaldi / REUTERS

Indonesia’s history of tolerance means that hard-line groups, including the protest organizers, have had only sporadic influence. All the same, Indonesia has a tiny minority who have joined groups such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda. A January 2016 ISIS attack in central Jakarta left seven dead—five of them were the inept attackers—and security forces are watchful for several hundred Indonesians thought to have returned from ISIS-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria.

Although Widodo’s attempt to take the sting out of the protests has been mostly well received, there are concerns that he could encourage hard-liners by praying with them in public, a move that some could regard as the president siding with the protesters against his former deputy Purnama, who will face a hearing over the blasphemy charges on December 13 and whose chances of winning the gubernatorial election are diminishing by the day.

“The governor should be just Muslim, and Ahok, he should be in jail,” protester Mohamad Atmadja shouted as the din of anti-Ahok speech echoed from the back of a truck near the city’s biggest mosque on November 4. That day, protesters carried signs calling for Purnama to be hanged, and the evening turned violent after demands that Purnama be arrested went unheeded. The demonstrators were apparently angered that Widodo did not meet with them, instead visiting an airport construction project, and said that the troublemakers were provocateurs who infiltrated the main protest group.

But soon after, the police announced that the case against Ahok would proceed. And Jokowi, apparently not wanting to risk snubbing the crowd for a second time, showed up at the next rally. “Jokowi took the decision [to attend the demonstration] to make the rally more calm, I think,” said Naispospos. “But what is the signal he sends to the public by appearing with the radicals?”

The reason may well be that Widodo is confident of his position, regardless of whether his opponents are using opposition to Jakarta’s governor as a stalking horse to test his presidency. “The majority were angry with Ahok; they basically have no problem with Jokowi and the size of the demonstration doesn’t indicate the influence of the radicals,” said Azyumardi Azra, one of Indonesia’s leading scholars of Islam, suggesting that Widodo had successfully, for now at least, checkmated the hardliners, and that attempts by the president’s opponents to use Islam to undermine the government will fall flat.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SIMON ROUGHNEEN is a correspondent in Southeast Asia who has written and photographed for The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Nikkei Asian Review, among other publications. 

  • More By Simon Roughneen