Bad news, but still committed to democracy
Yenny Wahid remains positive after the polarizing Jakarta gubernatorial election
24 April 2017
By: Duncan Graham
Photo: Erlinawati Graham

Overseas observers of Indonesian politics should not be too disheartened by the divisive Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign, despite the trauma and the result, according to religious peace activist Yenny Wahid.


“The campaign and result will be seen badly by the rest of the world,” the director of the faith-freedom watchdog the Wahid Institute told Strategic Review.


“Radicals did not control their excesses. We are not happy that politics is being driven by religious sentiment.


“It opened a Pandora’s Box but it’s also important not to jump to conclusions. Investors should stay engaged. We are still committed to democracy and the protection of minority rights. We must keep talking to each other.”


The campaign featured mass protests – one drew a crowd of half a million people – organized by Islamists fervently opposed to Governor Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama. 


The “double-minority” politician (ethnic Chinese and a Protestant) conceded defeat to Muslim candidate and former education minister Dr Anies Baswedan after the April 19 second round election, when unofficial quick counts showed a 57-43 percent result.


Turnout was just under 78 percent of the Indonesian capital’s 7.2 million registered voters according to the General Elections Commission.

The campaign was interpreted by some foreign media as a “triumph of prejudice over pluralism”. Domestically, The Jakarta Post dubbed it “the dirtiest, most polarizing and most divisive the nation has ever seen”. 


Stirring the mud was a blasphemy charge against Ahok. In a stump speech last year he allegedly suggested a verse in the Koran was being misused to mean voting for a kafir (unbeliever) was sinful.


The radicals claimed he had insulted the Holy Book and should be jailed; Ahok responded that his targets were preachers using religion in politics.


“What we’re seeing, more or less, is an Indonesian version of the US with the [Donald] Trump win, the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen in France,” said Wahid.


“The economic gap is getting wider everywhere and people are frustrated… they feel left out of the system and the structure doesn’t allow them to move up a level.”


(This year Oxfam reported that the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the poorest 100 million and that “inequality is slowing down poverty reduction, dampening economic growth and threatening social cohesion”.)


The Jakarta-based Wahid Institute is named after Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) who died in 2009. Prior to becoming Indonesia’s fourth President in 1999 he led the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization with 40 million members.


Wahid helped her father during his 21 months in office. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and worked as a journalist for Australia’s Fairfax newspapers. In 2009 she was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. 


She has become the face of religious harmony in Indonesia with her views sought by international leaders.  She met with US Vice President Mike Pence during his recent visit to Indonesia, and will talk to the Pope in the Vatican in May.


Wahid, 42, constantly addresses all faith groups to promote respect for diversity. Freedom of worship is guaranteed in the 1945 Constitution, which holds that the nation is secular. There are six government-approved religions.


However, Indonesia is also the world’s largest Muslim country with around 88 per cent of its 250 million population adherents. Extremists argue these statistics warrant an Islamic state. In 2005 the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI Council of Indonesian Scholars) issued a fatwa (religious instruction) outlawing pluralism, secularism and liberalism.


“It [being director of the Wahid Institute] is hard emotionally because I have family commitments with a husband and three daughters,” said Wahid. “It might be easier if I was a man in this macho society, but then the pressures could be physical rather than mental.


“I get my values and spirit from my Dad.  He said ‘be brave, don’t hate and don’t lie’. I feel that I have to work for religious understanding – it’s an obligation.


“Dad followed the Javanese principle of sumeleh, which means love of God and acceptance when all things that can be done have been done. It’s not fatalism.


“Of course we were disappointed with the election result. We expected Ahok to be given a second chance.


“But I was surprised to discover many older Chinese voted for Anies because they feared the whole brouhaha of the campaign and personal intimidation if Ahok won. Some human rights activists voted against Ahok because they disapproved of his forced slum-clearance policies.”


Baswedan, 47, a US-educated former university rector, has been labeled a moderate. He is now expected to be either a contender in the 2019 Presidential election or use his power base as Jakarta Governor to champion former army general Prabowo Subianto, 65, who narrowly lost to Joko (Jokowi) Widodo in 2014. 


Prabowo’s Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party supported Baswedan’s campaign.

Wahid rejected the suggestion that strict Islamic sharia law would be enforced in Jakarta to placate the extremists who helped defeat Ahok

“Gerindra is basically a secular party and they would be the first to feel the heat,” she said. 

“They would push back vigorously against sharia. Many members and backers, like business tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, are Chinese Christians.

“How do you answer this [conundrum]? I’m told that if anyone other than Ahok had made comments about the Koranic verse there would have been no worries.

“As a former journalist I understand why editors pick photos of fist shaking radicals waving posters over pictures of nice moderates – but the political situation in Indonesia is not as clear cut or as bad as some think.

“There are many versions of Islam. Indonesian Islam in its moderate form can bring enlightenment to the world – and show that there are other ways than extremism. Despite the Jakarta election campaign, that’s the message I want others to hear. We just have to work harder.”



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