Indonesia's Illiberal Turn

After the Ahok Case

Indonesian Muslims pray at a rally against Jakarta Governor Basuka Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok") inside the Istiqlal mosque, February 2017. Antara Foto Agency / Reuters

Indonesia is still reeling from a divisive election in April, in which hard-line Islamists forced the indictment on blasphemy charges, and eventual imprisonment, of the sitting governor of Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent named Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”). The trial and conviction of Ahok have generated fears that the country’s social fabric is fraying, that sectarianism is on the rise, and that Indonesia’s democratic institutions are too weak to withstand a concerted assault from Islamists. The country once praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama as a model of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy is now facing challenges to all three.

Despite such tensions, Indonesians remain overwhelmingly committed to democracy—some 70 percent believe it is the best system for their country—and the country is a rock of stability in Southeast Asia. There is little danger of Indonesia turning into an Islamic state. The real worry is that unscrupulous politicians have realized that playing the religious card can win them elections. They will surely try to use it again in the race for the presidency in 2019.


The election in Jakarta, which took place over two rounds in February and April, initially pitted Ahok against two Muslim candidates. One, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, was the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a political neophyte who had just resigned from the military. The other, Anies Baswedan, was a noted educator backed by Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo, the scion of an influential political family, a retired army general with a controversial human rights record, and the son-in-law of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, had lost the 2014 presidential election to an ally of Ahok, Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi.”

The governor of Jakarta, Basuka Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok"), at his blasphemy trial in Jakarta, May 2017.
Ahok at his blasphemy trial in Jakarta, May 2017. Antara Foto Agency / Reuters

The trouble started in September 2016 when Ahok urged a group of civil servants to vote their conscience and not be fooled by anyone using a verse of the Koran to suggest that non-Muslims could

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