KONFRONTASI - The large demonstration against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama last Friday was unnerving for the capital city’s inhabitants, with more than 200,000 people filling the streets. Fortunately it was a largely peaceful affair, save for some unruly behavior after the demonstration ended.
But this show of force is just the tip of the iceberg, and more protests will follow. A number of Islamic organizations organized the demonstration, which was fueled by public outrage. They are planning another large protest to take place after Nov. 25 unless Mr. Purnama is tried and convicted of blasphemy against the Muslim faith.
For outsiders not familiar with Indonesia, Mr. Purnama’s position as an ethnic Chinese and Christian politician in a Muslim majority country explains his predicament. Many foreigners believe this is yet another example of intolerant Islam threatening the secular state.
But this simplistic narrative misses the point. Mr. Purnama’s crude and abrasive leadership style alienated the majority of Indonesians, most of them moderates. That enabled the radical Islamist fringe to use the religion card as a ploy to gain political influence.
Mr. Purnama’s most controversial policy has been the eviction of the poor from illegal residences without adequate compensation. While this won him favor with the rich and middle class, he is widely criticized in the mass print and social media.
During my tenure as a cabinet member in the Widodo administration, many Indonesians came to my residence, some in tears, to tell their stories of sometimes violent evictions. While these kinds of stories were common during the Suharto years, such an abuse of power in today’s Indonesia was shocking. Meanwhile, property developers, the main beneficiaries of Mr. Purnama’s policies, continue to bankroll his campaign for the 2017 gubernatorial election.
Allegations of blasphemy against Islam and a sordid history of forced evictions are not Mr. Purnama’s only problems. He also leaves behind him a trail of financial scandals. These include the purchase of land for the Sumber Waras hospital that had an unaccounted flow of $35 million and the improper purchase of publicly owned land in the district of Cengkareng. Mr. Purnama denies any wrongdoing.
Mr. Purnama’s true character was most evident when protestors came to the streets and he derided them instead of seeking a dialogue. His public outburst that he would “use gasoline cannons to burn the demonstrators” shows why he is increasingly disliked.
Mr. Widodo has promised fast and transparent hearings over the coming weeks to decide the validity of the blasphemy charges against Mr. Purnama. This will determine whether he can continue as a candidate in the Jakarta race. But the protesters believe the hearings will be biased in the governor’s favor, since the president has a huge personal stake.
Mr. Purnama was deputy governor when Mr. Widodo ran Jakarta before stepping down to run successfully in the 2014 presidential election. Not only are they allies, but Mr. Widodo would like to use Mr. Purnama to prevent the opposition from gaining the political post that launched his bid to become president.
Unfortunately for the president, Mr. Purnama’s insistence on running in the Jakarta election could lead to serious consequences, both for his presidency and the country. If he is found “not guilty” of blasphemy, as expected, there will likely be more demonstrations, not only demanding he step down but perhaps greater political changes as well.
There is also a serious risk that future demonstrations could turn violent. The fundamentalist right might decide this is their opportunity to exploit the situation and strengthen their grip on the Indonesian political landscape. If so, the economy would certainly suffer and the army could decide to step in.
The best-case scenario would be for Mr. Purnama to admit his mistakes and resign from the election. At the very least, the president should pull his friend aside and tell him to do what is best for the country. This would defuse a precarious situation and deny fundamentalists the opening to pursue power.
Mr. Widodo won the presidency by promising to concentrate on political reform and economic growth. To fulfill his pledges he needs to put the always lurking Islamist genie firmly back in the bottle.
*Mr. Ramli is a former minister of finance, coordinating minister of economics and coordinating minister of maritime affairs of Indonesia.(Juft/The Wall SJ)