Ahok’s downfall may have been self-inflicted — Ferooze Ali

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MAY 2 — According to a quick count released by several pollsters, the current Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – popularly known by his nickname Ahok – and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat gained only about 43 per cent of the votes, while their challengers Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno are likely to win with roughly 57 per cent.

Though a final result will only be announced later this month – the quick count has more or less sealed Ahok chances in continuing to govern Jakarta.

Analysts are divided on the cause of his defeat – with Western observers largely zeroing on the rise of Islamism. It is undeniable that the Islamists have been extremely successful in injecting an Islamic element into the whole issue, thus invoking a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for Muslim voters to oust Ahok.

However, realistically speaking – Islamism contributed only a part of the bigger socio-political backlash, which we have witnessed on April 19, 2017. It is worth noting that – in late 2014, the Islamists did organised a rally against Ahok. The rally garnered a lukewarm response from Jakarta citizens.

Instead, what we see in the recent Jakarta election is a culmination of various genuine socio-cultural and economic dissatisfaction – which over time has been framed as a socio-religious issue by religious and seculars politicians alike.

To begin with, Ahok’s approach and ethics towards the Governorship post sets him apart. As someone who is willing to get down to the streets and listen to the people’s grouses, Ahok’s approach is relatively personal and non-elitist.

In a book titled A Man Called #AHOK: Sepenggal Kisah Perjuangan dan Ketulusan by Kurawa, the Jakarta Governor is even described by members of his own constituents (Belitung Island) as a charitable personality who would donate money for building mosques.

Though, in retrospect to his high-spirited and visionary work ethics, he has a distinct form of leadership.

Being temperamental, brash, outspoken and decisive – these traits characterise Ahok’s approach towards managing people and Jakarta public projects. For the polite and shy society of Javanese and Betawi, his logic of communication, however, may not be in-line with the generally accepted socio-cultural norms. Some have even suggested that his tough talk and Sumatran style has either captivated or appalled people in equal measure.

Secondly, his policies of slum clearances at the controversial Luar Batang seafront in 2016, though popular with the middle class, did not go down positively with the poorer segment of Jakarta inhabitants. The relocation of Luar Batang dwellers the majority that comprises poor fisherman to new locations far away from the seafront has affected the source of livelihood of this group.

It was at this juncture that Islamist group such as FPI (Islamic Defender Front) began showing solidarity with Luar Batang residents by making the Luar Batang mosque as the rallying point. In April 2016, it was turned into a humanitarian shelter for residents affected by the relocation exercise.

Similarly, a controversial FP leader Habib Rizieq visited and handed out Rp 100 million, (USD 7500.00) or (RM 32,579) to the residents affected.

This move had broad consequences.

First and foremost, this solidarity raises the plight of Luar Batang’s residents beyond the affected location. The plight equally resonates with the lower-middle income to poor Muslims segments – that already make up the majority citizens in Jakarta. More importantly, it raised the Islamist group as a credible movement to be fighting what now seems to be Ahok’s perceived discriminative and oppressive policy against Jakarta’s poor Muslim neighbourhood.

The big break for the Islamist movement came when Ahok is accused of uttering blasphemous insult against a paragraph in Al- Quran. Although the recording of the incident itself is questionable, it became widely circulated on YouTube, prompting a broad backlash from Muslim community and religious conservatives.

Compounding all the above issues and by framing it as a form of Islamic struggle – Islamist group such as FPI and FUI (Indonesia Ulama Council) in November 2016 organised a public demonstration attended by nearly 50,000–200,000 people demanding for Ahok’s resignation and trial. In December, another rally was held in Central Jakarta, which was attended by an estimated 200,000 people.

Demonstrations in late 2016 had provided a strong ripple effect on the Jakarta Governor election in April 2017.

The culminations of events opened a window of opportunity for Muslim moderate politicians, which in this case – Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno to jump into the Islamist bandwagon and packaged their campaign in line with the broader grouses.

Clear contrast can be seen in the campaigning style. Ahok focused on policy, while Anies and his allies focused on religion. Another Indonesian political heavyweight – Prabowo who himself is a military and nationalist-oriented leader is reported to have sided with the Islamist by endorsing Anies and Sandiaga candidacy.

These strategies paid well when Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno won the Jakarta Gubernatorial election in April 2017.

In a nutshell, there are two key take-away facts worth noting from all these development.

First, notwithstanding how successful the Islamist movement was in framing the anomaly that is Ahok – the major successors that took the Governor’s office – has ironically not been anyone from the Islamist movement. As a matter of fact, it is the two moderate and secular politicians, who happened to be Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno.

This leads us to a second conclusion, that is, the preoccupation with the rise of Islamist Indonesia and the downfall of religious tolerance narrative – has only provided a partial understanding of the political dynamics. I would argue that the recent development has not shown any clear indication that the “rising Islamist element” could compromise Indonesia’s established religious, social and political tolerance, in the long-term.

Instead, the clear fact is – the issue of religion and race can be utilised as a convenient but impactful force to discredit leaders in Indonesia. Moreover, given the success in April 2017, such strategy may be employed again in the future. I suspect Jokowi given his liberal political outlook may face a similar challenge with his 2019 Presidential re-election.

On Ahok’s side – his downfall could possibly be traced to his failure to understand the finer nuances of Indonesia socio-cultural politics. In this context, he should have understood that his actions rightly or wrong had the possibility to be taken out of context, if he in the first place, did not tread his style of communication tactfully.

His future in Indonesian politics will largely depend on how he makes amends with the grass-root segment in Indonesian politics. He still has sizeable support and sympathisers in both Jakarta and Belitung.

Now, all that he needs is to reassure the broader voters that he will not positively approach his public and political work as he did previously.

* Ferooze Ali is a doctoral candidate in political science at USM, Penang.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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