Current Affairs

‘Anti-kafir’ politics in local elections: Jakarta and Medan cases

AE Priyono and Teresa Birks

The politicization of religion in the Jakarta gubernatorial election isn’t without precedent.

In Medan, North Sumatra, religious identity took on unprecedented importance in the 2010 mayoral election where it was used to undermine the legitimacy of mayoral candidate Sofyan Tan.

Being ethnically Chinese and Buddhist, it was a surprise to many that he and his running mate, Nelly Armayanti (a Minangkabau Muslim woman), made it through to the second round. Some hailed his success a sign that the people of Medan were moving away from voting along ethnic and religious lines.

Yet during the second round of the election it became increasingly clear that as a kafir (infidel) Sofyan Tan quite simply could not be allowed to win. In Jakarta, the victim of identity politics is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok. As Joko Widodo’s (alias Jokowi) running mate, he has been targeted for being ethnically Chinese and Christian.

Provocative sermons in a number of the capital’s mosques have warned against voting for a kafir. One such sermon was notoriously delivered by Indonesia’s most popular dangdut singer, Rhoma Irama.

More seriously, the speaker of House of Representatives, Marzuki Alie, has stated that any Jakartan Muslim voting for a non-Muslim was also a kafir. And although in Jakarta the role of the Indonesian Council of Muslims (MUI) is more ambiguous, in Medan it was explicitly involved in the mobilization of the anti-kafir vote.

And it wasn’t just Tan who was targeted. Muslim scholars who publicly supported him were ostracized and labeled kafir. In the run up to the election, the regional daily, Waspada, ran a series of articles outlining why Muslims were obliged to vote for a “leader of the same faith.”

In Jakarta, although the anti-non Muslim sentiment is directed at Ahok, it is also intended to discredit Jokowi. This is evident from Rhoma Irama’s insinuation that Jokowi’s mother was a Christian, an accusation for which he had later to apologize as it was not the case.

During Ramadhan, the anti non-Muslim campaign intensified. Leaflets were circulated warning Muslims that they had to vote for a “leader of the same faith”.

Posters, banners and graffiti warned of the “danger of Christianization”, some with more specific anti-Chinese sentiments.

Was this increasing sectarianism or a political strategy?

In both Medan and Jakarta, the politics of “kafirization” demonstrates how the manipulation of identity politics, religious identity in particular, is a very real threat to local democracy.

In the context of a plural, secular Indonesia, religious interpretation of the democratic process that forbids non-Muslims from holding public office is both provocative and illegitimate. Certainly it is in violation of civil and political rights and the principle of equal citizenship in democratic participation.

In Jakarta, some young intellectuals of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Communion of Indonesian Churches (PGI) and Muhammadiyah have started a petition at to urge the General Elections Commission (KPU) to conduct a public declaration by candidates to stop “kafirization” campaigns. On Thursday last week the KPU did this.

There is not yet sufficient data to indicate whether the politics of “kafirisation” is a widespread phenomenon, nor what the pattern, assuming there is one, may be. We require more comprehensive research to produce a detailed map of this trend. Is it an indicator of increasing sectarianism in Indonesian politics? Is it a national phenomenon, or just a characteristic of specific localities? How rooted is it in divisive sentiment? Or is it merely a strategy deployed for winning elections where circumstances allow?

In order to consider these questions, we should certainly note the following: the Governor of Central Kalimantan, Terras Narang, a Catholic, has yet to face significant Muslim opposition.

In Kotamobagu, North Sulawesi, Jan Tuuk, a Christian, was elected as deputy district head in what is a Muslim majority area without any protest; and in 2005, Ahok himself was elected district head of Belitung Timur, a Malay-Muslim majority constituency. And in several other areas including North Sumatra, Central Java, NTT, Ambon, Papua and Central Sulawesi the election of non-Muslims is considered normal.

But why is this happening today, moreover in cities known for their heterogeneity such as Medan and Jakarta? Why has the pejorative term kafir become part of the political lexicon?

One of the similarities between Medan and Jakarta is that the issue of religious identity has been used to attack a credible non-Muslim candidate who can potentially win an election in a second round run-off against a Muslim candidate, in both cases the incumbent.

Certainly the electoral system itself, a two round run-off majority system, is in any case vulnerable to negative campaigning in the second round.

In the first round, particularly where there are a number of candidates representing different interests and identities, candidates risk alienating potential voters if they attack their opponents.

In the case of Medan, religious identity proved itself to be that issue, though only in the second round. In fact in the first round, candidates backed by Islamic parties and those that promoted an Islamic identity won little support.

But what about Jakarta? How much currency does this way of thinking actually have?

Preliminary research from the Public Virtue Institute found that political participation in Jakarta has strengthened during the 2012 election. Fauzi Bowo’s administration is seen as a direct legacy of the New Order and there is tangible desire for more representative government that will put an end to elitist traditions.

Lower middle classes in particular have found in Jokowi a figure they hope can bring about concrete change to their lives.

And social media not only provides fertile ground for the criticism of Fauzi, it is also proving to be an effective base for the repoliticization of golput (voting boycott) campaigners. With the reactivation of golput activists in Jakarta, the current wave of change may yet be driven by the critical middle classes.

*This article has been published for first time in

Leave a Reply